§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Ann Widdecombe)
I beg to move,That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 1997–98 (HC 208), which was laid before this House on 27th January, be approved.I am pleased to open the debate on the funding of the police service. The settlement demonstrates the Government's commitment to providing the police with the resources to carry on the magnificent job that they do every day of the year, 24 hours a day. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said, we have the best police service in the world. The police deserve our support and we shall back them every inch of the way.
Our determination to back the police is evidenced by the extra money that we have made available to them over the years. Expenditure on the police has increased from just over £1 billion to more than £7 billion since 1979. I am proud to say that spending has therefore more than doubled in real terms. Our support for the police is made through the police grant and the local authority finance system. Tonight, we are debating the police grant report and we shall debate the English and Welsh local government finance reports in the next few days.
The increases in resources have been reflected in increased police numbers. Since 1978–79, overall police numbers have increased by about 16,000. More officers are being put back on the beat to address the public's demand for high-visibility policing. The number of constables has increased by 2,360 since the last general election, making a total of more than 98,000. Between 1983 and 1996, more than 9,100 officers were released for other work by bringing in civilians.
Our support is paying off. Recorded crime in the 12 months to June 1996 was down by 10 per cent. on the rate three years ago. That is a fall of more than half a million offences—the biggest continuous fall over three years since records were first kept in 1857. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) is smiling because she welcomes that significant decrease. Those successes have not happened by accident: they are a tribute to the hard work and dedication of police men and women up and down the country. They demonstrate that our strategy of supporting the police by giving them the resources they need is the correct one.
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
Does my hon. Friend recall that, when Labour was last in power, the police were undermanned and underpaid, and so demoralised that officers were leaving in droves?
§ Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)
Will the hon. Lady have the grace to acknowledge that average police numbers rose faster, year by year, during the life of the last Labour Government than under this Government? That hardly bears out her claim, which is not justified.
§ Miss Widdecombe
My claim is justified because police numbers have risen by more than 16,000 since 456 the Conservatives came to power. I am sure that we will have the opportunity to debate that point in later exchanges.
In total, £7.3 billion will be available for policing next year, including £205 million for capital expenditure. This is a good settlement for the police: it shows our commitment to fighting crime and maintaining law and order, and the priority that we give to those aims when we are keeping careful control of public spending to ensure the wise use of taxpayers' resources.
Capping limits for police authorities will be confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment next week, but they are set to be fixed at 3.2 per cent. That measure, coupled with the additional funding that is being provided outside the cap, will deliver an increase in police authority spending power of £247 million. In setting the allocations for individual police authorities in the report, we have listened to the views of those on the ground—the chief constables, police authority representatives and people who make day-to-day decisions about how valuable resources are spent. They have told us that stability in allocations is their overriding concern. They do not want to see their funding see-sawing from year to year: they want to be able to plan ahead.
Therefore, we have applied two additional rules to the funding formula—rules 1 and 3 in the report. They will ensure that every force receives a 2 per cent. increase in the total police grant, standard spending assessment and SSA reduction grant if they receive it, in addition to a 3 per cent. minimum increase for provincial forces this year and an average increase of 4.2 per cent. the year before. That is evidence of our firm and consistent support for the police. Those increases do not include money for the extra constables promised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I shall return to that issue later.
We have also proposed measures that would enable police authorities outside London to increase their spending by 3.2 per cent. if they wished to do so. When we add to that the money for new officers that was promised by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the potential increase becomes 3.7 per cent.
§ Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
Will the Minister explain to the House why the Merseyside police service has suffered a reduction of more than 400 in the number of officers on the beat in the past few years?
§ Miss Widdecombe
The way in which individual police forces decide to allocate their resources and the priorities that they attach to their spending patterns are matters for the chief constables.
§ Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)
My hon. Friend may be pleased to learn that I recently had a meeting with the chief constable of the South Wales police, who reassured me that all the extra money made available by the Government will be spent on extra policing.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I am delighted to hear that, and I welcome the chief constable's statement. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that to the House's attention.
457 Some people have pointed out that if police authorities budget up to their capping limit, higher council tax bills will result. We should keep that claim in perspective. If authorities spend right up to their limit, the average band D council tax payer will pay just £7 a year more. Overall, central Government currently funds between 80 per cent. and 85 per cent. of police expenditure. It must be right that council tax payers should bear a slightly higher proportion of the burden of funding the police.
If police authorities were to budget up to the proposed cap, that would still mean a change of under 1 per cent. in the balance of funding. We do not intend to tell police authorities how to set their precept for the police: that is not our role. It is for each authority to decide at what level the precept should be set and it will naturally want to balance its force's need to maintain current levels of service with the position of council tax payers.
I have already reminded hon. Members of the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to provide funding for an additional 5,000 police officers over three years. Forces will receive the first slice of that funding, some £20 million, this year. Next year, forces will receive a share of funding for those officers taken on this year. They will also receive a further £40 million in additional money. Additional rule 2 in the police grant report is applied to distribute that funding between the forces.
That extra £40 million is sufficient to pay for 2,000 officers, but again we are not telling chief officers how to spend their money. It is for them to decide how the funding should be allocated. I hope that, when considering how to spend it, they will listen to the public, who always make it clear—
§ Mr. Michael
Does the hon. Lady recall that the promise made by the Prime Minister before the last general election to increase police numbers by 1,000 was not surrounded by caveats? It was a direct promise, and it was not delivered. Why has the Prime Minister's promise—which also was not surrounded by caveats—of 5,000 extra police not been delivered?
§ Miss Widdecombe
The hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that we now have a record number of constables. That is clear proof of our commitment.
I was saying before I was not very intelligently interrupted that, when the police consider how to spend the money, we hope that they will listen to the public, who always make it clear that they want more officers on the beat, which demonstrates—
§ Miss Widdecombe
I would like to finish my sentence this time, having given way in the middle of it last time. That demonstrates the high regard in which the police are held.
§ Mr. Michael
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. These issues will come up in debate, but I think that she should 458 acknowledge that there are 500 fewer police officers now than there were in March 1992, when the Prime Minister made the pledge, which, as I said, was not fulfilled.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that that very slight fall, against the overall rise, is accounted for by the rise in the number of constables and the flatter management structure, which has resulted in a slight shift in the figures.
We will support total capital expenditure of £205 million in 1997–98, and we will honour our existing commitments. All funding for specific police building projects is being maintained, which is what the Association of Chief Police Officers wanted. Some projects will be deferred, but it is open to individual forces to explore private finance initiative opportunities if they do not want to defer.
There has been a reduction in capital provision. That reflects the scope for greater efficiency and value for money. In particular, it recognises the opportunities open to police authorities to benefit from the private finance initiative in running their capital programmes.
Increasingly, the police service is taking advantage of PFI. The fundamental objective of PFI is to secure the best possible use of capital resources at best value for the public sector. The private sector is using its skills and expertise to help deliver better deals for the police.
We now have 14 pilot PFI projects with an estimated capital value of £130 million in all. For example, Derbyshire police are in the final stages of agreeing a contract with the private sector to design, build, finance and operate a replacement police station at Ilkeston. Derbyshire and others are forging ahead with their pathfinder projects. Those projects are yet another example of police forces' enthusiasm for looking at new and more effective ways to provide services to the public. They will also be a valuable source of advice on best practice for future schemes.
I am convinced that the private finance initiative has a future in the police service as in other parts of the public sector The private finance initiative means that risks best borne by the private sector do not fall on the client, and it brings new and innovative solutions. Above all, PFI means value for money.
The Metropolitan police's spending power will increase to more than £1.7 billion in 1997–98. That is an increase of 3.4 per cent. over 1996–97, including the funding for extra officers. We recognise that they have a unique role because of their national and capital city functions, so they will receive a special payment amounting to £130 million to cover that work.
The bulk of police funding is allocated according to the needs-based formula that was introduced in 1995–96. We made a number of refinements last year, in response to concerns expressed by the police and others. This year we have again listened to the police in refining the formula for 1997–98.
In 1996–97, 40 per cent. of funding was allocated on the basis of establishment or police staffing figures from 1994. For 1997–98, that proportion will reduce to 30 per cent. The establishment figure is increasingly out of date. The need for such a component continues to recede, but it provides useful continuity with previous funding regimes, so it stays for next year at least, albeit at a reduced level.
459 We have looked long and hard at the pensions element. We recognise that pension costs have risen, so we have increased the proportion of funding distributed under that component from 12. per cent. to 12.9 per cent. The model used by the Government Actuary's Department to project forces' relative pensions expenditure has been overhauled.
I know that police forces went to a lot of trouble to provide information on pensioners and serving officers, and I am grateful to them for that. The result is more accurate information and a fairer distribution of resources.
§ Ms Eagle
The hon. Lady will know that the pension component of the formula presents particular difficulties in Merseyside. Is she absolutely certain that her Department has taken account of all the extra retirements and the efficiency savings that the police force has made by removing part of the management structure, to which she referred earlier? That has put even more pressure on this area of expenditure.
§ Miss Widdecombe
We believe that we have taken into account all relevant factors in reaching our conclusions. I accept the hon. Lady's point. The pensions problem is a difficult and major one, and although it has an impact on all forces, it affects certain forces in particular.
Other parts of the formula have also benefited from improved data. The way in which the money is divided is based on what we know about how the police spend their time. The latest information on police activity and incidents has been reflected in the formula.
Finally, we have acknowledged that patrol is a crucial element of police work. The patrol component of the formula is now shown separately. It is now clear for all to see that a significant proportion of police funding is allocated on the basis of this important area of work.
§ Mr. Stephen
Does my hon. Friend accept that her statement shows the Government's firm commitment to the policing of this country? Does she share my perhaps unrealistic hope that the broadcast media will report her statement fairly, and will not do what they did last time, which was to seek out the police authority with the smallest increase and mislead the public into thinking that that was the general situation?
§ Miss Widdecombe
Not having the powers of a clairvoyant, I do not know what the media will do. I have learnt not to hope for entirely fair treatment, and again on this occasion I will not risk putting money on receiving fair treatment from them. However, I join my hon. Friend in hoping that the media will indeed reflect accurately the considerable support that is clearly demonstrated by what I have been saying.
I was talking about the work on the formula. That work is not yet finished; we will continue to look at the funding formula this year to see whether further refinements are required. Representatives of the police service and police authorities will be fully involved, and will therefore be able to make points such as the one made by the hon. Member for Wallasey in relation to Merseyside.
460 I have set out a very satisfactory settlement for the police service, and a fair and equitable distribution of the available funds between the 43 forces in England and Wales. We have ensured stability in allocation. All forces outside London can receive at least 3.2 per cent. more money. On top of that, we have delivered the next chunk of money to meet my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's promise of funds to provide 5,000 extra constables. We have refined the formula, which now uses more accurate information than ever before. The establishment factor continues to shrink, and rising pension costs have been recognised.
The report gives us, and the people, a properly and fairly funded police service. It enables the police to go into battle with the terrorist, the burglar and the mugger armed with the resources that are needed to carry out that work. I commend the report to the House.
§ Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)
I pay tribute to the ingenuity of Ministers. Every effort was made to ensure that the House was not misled—that must have been very difficult, because the facts relating to police finance are now becoming clear. Far from giving the police an extra 3.7 per cent. this year, total Government support will rise by less than 2 per cent.—1.98 per cent., to be precise.
The Minister said that the settlement demonstrated the Government's commitment to the police. She was misinformed. That is as absurd as her claim about police numbers. She suggested that the cut in capital funds gave scope for efficiency; I suggest that the motivation was not to increase efficiency, but to save money. It certainly lessens the scope for efficiency if the police cannot spend money on expensive new technology that may help them to tackle crime by reducing the burden of bureaucratic work and getting more policemen out on the streets.
The Government will not spend money on increasing police numbers; they will make local people pay through the council tax. I am not sure whether to call that institutional theft or another Tory tax rise, but I ask the House to take careful note of the exact words that have been used. In a Home Office press release issued in November 1996, to which the Home Secretary gave the heading "More resources for the fight against crime", the right hon. and learned Gentleman stated:My top priority is maintaining law and order and tackling crime.He says that fairly frequently, but no one believes him. He continued:Planned spending fully reflects that commitment.The words were carefully chosen. He added:More funding for police authorities will allow the police service to continue the fight against criminals and to recruit another 2,000 constables.Reading those words, one might think that the Home Secretary intended to provide money from the Home Office budget rather than going on a pocket-picking spree.
461 Another Home Office press release was issued today, in the name of the Minister of State, who is not taking part in tonight's debate. I understand that the Home Secretary has gone abroad to avoid being present for it The Minister of State said:In a year when we have more bobbies on the beat than ever before. I am delighted that we will be able to give police authorities increased spending power to continue the fight against crimeHon. Members should note the words "we" and "give"—words used by a Minister who described the settlement as generous. I am not surprised that the Minister who is present has been given the "hospital pass" of being allowed to deal with tonight's debate; I am sure that the other Ministers know that the money is being provided not by the Home Office but by local people.
Having checked all the figures that have been laid before the House, I can assure hon. Members that they do not actually mislead the House. Today's Home Office press release, however, represents an extraordinary attempt to fool the public into believing that the Government are providing extra money for the police, and that the Home Secretary is fulfilling the promise made by the Prime Minister in October 1995 to provide additional money to finance an extra 5,000 police officers. Neither is true, as I shall spell out.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
This is a short debate I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is about to come to the kernel of his speech—I am sure that he is—and tell us how much more a Labour Government would give the police. Surely, any other words condemning the Government are sheer hypocrisy.
§ Mr. Michael
No. I am going straight to the target of the debate, which is the Government's hypocrisy in making a statement that makes it appear that they are giving money to the police, when they are in fact picking the pockets of local people to obtain the sums that are at the bottom of the finance sheet. That is what our debate should be about: that needs to be exposed.
Let me remind the House what the Conservative party promised the British people before the last general election. Page 22 of its manifesto stated:We are continuing to increase police numbers. There will be 1,000 extra officers this year.That intention was confirmed by the Home Office annual report, published in March in the run-up to that general election. It stated:The Government plans to increase police establishments further in 1992–93 by nearly 1,000 police officers.Once the general election was over, the Conservative party reneged on that promise. I suspect that it was partly because of the constant scrutiny from Opposition Members that Ministers decided, in 1994, to absolve themselves of responsibility for setting the police establishment by devolving decisions to chief constables through the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994. When we were debating that legislation, we said we thought that that curious conversion to the devolving of responsibilities might have something to do with an intention to cut police numbers, and we were right.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that we did in fact, approve sufficient funds for 1,000 additional officers in 1992–93, that some police 462 authorities decided that they would not deliver their share of those approved funds and that, none the less, we gave it to them? Will he confirm that, in the event, police strength increased by 845 in that year?
§ Mr. Michael
I shall come to the numbers in a moment, but it is a fact that, in 1992–93, responsibility for deciding police establishment and police numbers had not been taken away from the Home Office. That happened in the 1994 Act. The Minister cannot evade responsibility on behalf of her colleagues. In fact, police numbers went down during that year.
It is, of course, right for police authorities to be able to consider what is best for their areas, and to agree with the chief constable the balance between spending on equipment and personnel, between police officers and civilians and at each rank. It is pretty obvious that the only reason Ministers were willing to allow subsidiarity is that they believed that it would let them off the hook in reducing police budgets in real terms.
As we predicted, police numbers went down. Before the last election, the annual report projected a total of 129,425 police officers by March 1966. The Home Office has confirmed that on 31 March 1996 the total number of officers was 126,878—more than 2,500 below the number promised. As the Prime Minister promised to fund an extra 5,000 police officers over three financial years, commencing in April 1996, it is pertinent to ask the Minister what the base line is. Is it the number of officers in March 1996 or the number of officers that, in 1992, Ministers promised there would be in 1996? Is it perhaps the number of officers before the last election, plus the 1,000 officers promised then?
That question has not been answered by the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary, although it has been asked many times. It would provide an honest starting point if Ministers answered that question: sadly, it would be an academic answer, because the latest Home Office figures show that the total number of police officers in England and Wales in September 1996 was 500 lower than the number in March 1992, immediately before the general election.
§ Mr. Stephen
On the subject of questions that have not been answered, surely the point put to the hon. Gentleman by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) is right: the hon. Gentleman cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say that more central Government money must be devoted to the police, but refuse to commit his party to putting any more central Government money in.
§ Mr. Michael
The hon. Gentleman seems not to have understood the importance of what I am saying. His party went to the 1992 general election promising 1,000 additional police officers and has not delivered that. It is now promising an additional 5,000 police officers, and it is not providing the resources or putting in the money to meet the Prime Minister's promise.
I understand that Conservative Members are practising for opposition. They want to question Ministers and we are prepared to practise answering questions, but, at the moment, it is the Conservative Government's pledges that are under scrutiny. I pledge that we will at least deliver what we promise. The basic point is that, when he spoke 463 during the general election, the Prime Minister promised an extra 1,000 police officers, and he did not deliver. He is now promising 5,000 additional police officers over a finite period, and he is not delivering the money to meet that requirement.
§ Miss Widdecombe
As the hon. Gentleman deludes himself utterly that he is practising for government—I assure him that he is not—perhaps he could give us a foretaste of exactly what his Government will do and answer the question that was aptly put to him. How much more would a Labour Government spend on the police, and has the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) agreed to that spending?
§ Mr. Michael
I look forward to the first Home Office questions after the general election, when I hope that it will be appropriate for the hon. Lady to ask the questions. She should be more interested in providing a cogent explanation of why she serves in a Government whose Prime Minister promised 1,000 extra police officers and failed to deliver that, and why her settlement today fails to deliver the promise. That is the sort of Prime Minister and Government that we have. That is why it is about time they were swept away.
The practical effect, for instance, in London is that, since the last general election, the number of police officers has fallen by 1,000. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) referred to Merseyside. Between March 1992 and September 1996, the number of police officers in Merseyside went down by 351. It will lose another 215 by 2001. The people of Wirral, with whom I discussed police issues last week and again a few weeks ago, will not be impressed by that failure to support the police in Merseyside, which is implicit in the Minister's statement today.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Does not Merseyside still have more police officers per 1,000 head of population than any other force outside London? As money is allocated on the basis of population, is it not also true that the Merseyside population is decreasing and that the number of officers in that force, as in others, is a matter for the chief constable?
§ Mr. Michael
That is a little essay for the defence, I suppose. Merseyside has considerable crime problems. The police in Merseyside whom I visited a few weeks ago face chronic problems. The people of Wirral to whom I was listening only days ago said that they were unhappy with the lack of resources for the Merseyside police. The settlement makes matters worse for the people of Merseyside.
§ Mr. Michael
My hon. Friend is right. It is interesting that local people—this was clear in Wirral—see through what the Government have been up to. Those people recognise that promises are made and not kept, and that 464 they have to pay more for less because of the way in which the Government have dealt with their finances. My hon. Friend makes a telling point, which must greatly embarrass the Minister.
The Government's record on police numbers is not good. The police have to deal with worse problems because of the huge increase in crime over which the Tories have presided. Violent crime is up by 163 per cent. compared with 1979, crime has doubled and criminals are three times more likely to get away with violent crimes than in 1979 when Labour was in office. The facts about police numbers are clear. Under the Labour Government, the average increase in the number of police officers was more than 700 a year, much greater than under the Conservatives. Since 1989, the increase has been only 127 a year. Under the Labour Government, there was less crime and a greater commitment to policing and the future bodes better for the police and the public than for the past few years.
Let us put all that history behind us and look at what has happened since the Prime Minister made his new promise to fund extra officers. Last year's police grant report included an extra £20 million for the first tranche of additional officers. However, as I said in last year's debate and as is made plain on page 154 of the Home Office annual report, the capital grants allocated to police authorities were reduced by £23 million from the previous year, and that in itself was a reduction of £19 million compared with what was promised on page 126 of the 1995 Home Office annual report. I do not think that Ministers want us to look closely at the figures, but those figures are in documents that were published by the Home Office, and they cannot escape them.
It is fine for Ministers to say that they will provide extra money for police officers, but, if they keep cutting the capital budget every year, how on earth is the force expected to keep up with increased expenditure on more police, uniforms and police cars, not to mention side-handled batons and pepper sprays and all the other innovations that the Home Secretary has announced in press releases in the past couple of years? That is the context in which we look at this year's settlement.
The Home Office issued two press releases giving the joyous news that police grant was up 3.7 per cent. and that total police spending power was up 3.7 per cent. Perhaps the general public and even informed journalists were fooled by that information into thinking that the Government were giving the police an increase of 3.7 per cent. this year. I hope that the representatives of the press who are covering the debate will be fair on the Minister; I am not sure that that will have the desired effect suggested by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), because, if the Government are dealt with fairly, the coverage will be extremely critical.
I am sure that the Home Secretary cannot have harboured such dishonourable intent, but I thought it sensible to seek further clarification in case anyone felt the slightest bit misled. Just before Christmas, I tabled parliamentary questions so that the Home Secretary could clarify the position to the House. His answer appeared in columns 269–70 of the Official Report of Wednesday 15 January 1997: the increase in total Government grants to police authorities was just 2.2 per cent. but there was a flaw in the answer because it did not include the capital grants.
465 I have today received a list of the capital grants that have been allocated to each police authority and they show why the Home Secretary chose not to include them in his totals. The grants are down again this year to below last year's figure, which in itself was £20 million short.
By my calculations, the real increase in Government support to the police is just £117 million, a rise of less than 2 per cent. Where is the rest of the money that enabled the Home Secretary to claim a 3.7 per cent. increase without in any way misleading the House? The answer in the Official Report of Wednesday 15 January makes it clear that the Government intend to ask local government taxpayers to stump up the cash. The Minister's figures are based on the Government's contribution going up by a miserable 1.8 per cent. and the cash demanded from local authorities going up by an average of 14 per cent.
It is interesting to look at the figures for Kent, where the Government contribution will go up by 2.39 per cent. I am not sure what the citizens of Kent will say when they discover that the Home Secretary is to send them a bill that will increase the burden on council tax by 13.4 per cent. The bill will not come directly from Kent's Members of Parliament, the Home Secretary and the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe); it will come by the scenic route of the local council tax, but it will have been written by the Conservative Members who represent that area.
The increase in the council tax precept in Merseyside will be 16.9 per cent. At the top end of the scale, and based on the Government's own figures, Cleveland will suffer an 18.5 per cent. increase.
§ Mr. Stephen
Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that the distinction he is attempting to draw between council tax payers and income tax payers is artificial. Council tax payers and income tax payers are substantially the very same people.
§ Mr. Michael
The hon. Gentleman should know full well—although I appreciate that he, like the Home Secretary, avoided accountancy and went into law, which is probably just as well—that the Government are saying that they are giving extra money to the police, but that they are not giving Government money to the police They are not providing the money they take from taxpayers to provide the rises. They are saying, "It's not coming out of our sums. We'll take it out of council money instead, and let council tax payers pay for it." They hope that local authorities will be blamed, although the burden will have been placed on local taxpayers because of the Government's decisions.
The hon. Member for Shoreham really must appreciate Ministers' sleight of hand, because there is no doubt that they think the public will believe that local councils are taking the money or that they hope councils will get the blame. The increased financial burden on local authorities, however, has an impact on crime and on the work of the police.
Labour-controlled local authorities want to do more, not less, on crime prevention and public protection. They want to do more, not less, on work with young people to cut youth crime They want to do more, not less, in working with the police and the local community to cut local crime. However, those authorities are being provided 466 not with more help but with an additional burden by the Government. I am sure that next week's announcement on local authority settlements in England and in Wales will show just how difficult the situation has become.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will remind those Labour-controlled local authorities that the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has made it clear that those spending plans cannot be changed.
§ Mr. Michael
Yes, indeed. The problems that the Government have given to local authorities are very considerable and clear. As we all realise, an incoming Government will inherit the problems created by the current Government.
Next week, we will hear more about the problems that the Government are offloading on to local government. As I said, the way in which the Government have dealt with police finances will make the situation worse, and they have still not managed to meet the challenge of creating a fair and transparent police funding formula that is dependable over the long term. Ministers recognise the problems posed by increasing pension burdens, but they have not solved them.
This year, the police will not experience a real, bottom-line increase in resources, and far less will they be able to provide for additional police officers. Even without that swingeing 14 per cent. increase in council tax precepts—which is an average, as I have made clear; the burden will be even higher in some places—the total increase is only £247 million, compared with local authorities estimated cost of £371 million for pay increments, rising pension costs, pay and price increases and allowing for efficiency savings to fulfil the Prime Minister's promise.
As with the rest of the Government's approach to law and order, today's settlement fails to deliver what it promises. It fails the police; it shrugs financial responsibility from the Home Office to local authorities; and, above all, it continues with the Government's tradition of failing the public across England and Wales.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
I shall keep my speech brief, and plead the case of North Wales police. I should say that, against the background of a tight public spending round, the police settlement has been marginally higher than the settlements for some other services. There are problems, however, particularly in north Wales. Some of the points that I shall make are specific to that area, although some apply to all police forces.
The 3.2 per cent. overall budget increase—before funding for additional officers is provided—is sufficient to fund only the full-year effects of 1996–97 pay rises, in 1997–98, and forecast and pension rises, in 1997–98. That assumes that the police authority will agree to set the maximum precept.
There is insufficient to meet likely price increases in services, energy, fuel and consumables. To maintain current levels of operation, the North Wales police will be forced to fund significant savings from maintenance and support areas. Operational support demands are increasingly sophisticated and expensive. Several 467 initiatives must be taken to improve the operational safety of officers and the effectiveness of procedures, and each requires a significant investment. They include provision of body armour, measures to improve the armed response to meet growing needs and provision for crime recording and management systems and for the continuing expense of communications. Those developments will have to stand still for the coming couple of years in the North Wales police area.
The reduction in the capital allocation for minor works, vehicles and equipment from £1.33 million to £1.076 million is placing an additional strain on the revenue budget and delaying important developments. Private finance initiative projects are being investigated, although, even if they are successful, they are unlikely to relieve pressure on the capital programme for the next financial year or two.
The damping procedure introduced as additional rule 1 is welcome, as otherwise the funding formula changes would have produced a further reduction in spending power in the North Wales police of about £1.5 million. There is real concern that the protection of additional rule 1 will be removed in the short to medium term. That would require a major reduction in the size of the police force and in its ability to provide the community with the level of policing they expect from provisions announced in the proposal and additional rule 2.
There is no doubt that there will be a reversal in the recent trend of recruiting some additional officers. Despite having recently achieved significant efficiency savings, including a major reduction in supervisory ranks, the force will be forced to consider further staff cuts as a result of the proposed settlement. There appears to be an assumption that a flatter management structure is required, although commanders and managers in the North Wales police are already spread too thinly.
An additional burden is the need to provide legal representation—this burden is unique to the North Wales police area—at the north Wales child abuse inquiry. There will be a cost of £1.6 million over two financial years. That is proving to be a major drain on resources, and in a year of negligible growth there is no option other than to reduce the capacity of services and to delay further some essential developments. The force's reserves of £1 million are, of course, insufficient to absorb anything other than a minor contribution.
The settlement allows for little real growth. The demand for police services and the expectations of the north Wales community are growing at a greater rate than resources are being applied. The announcement that the 1997–98 settlement includes funding for additional police officers has further heightened public expectations.
The reality is that the settlement barely provides for pay and price increases. In addition, the environment in which police officers work has a greater prospect for hostility and violence. Police officers must be given adequate protection. The additional cost of providing body armour, CS spray, the new batons and so on must be provided from the current, rather static budget. That will inevitably mean reduced services.
The growth in pensions, already referred to by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), is being provided at the expense of the operational budget; pensions are being 468 paid from the settlement. The net cost of police pensions in north Wales is growing at 10 per cent. per annum. As the settlement has been capped at 3.9 per cent. for 1997–98, it has been necessary to reduce operational budgets by £500,000 to compensate. That equates to a reduction of 20 police officers. That situation should not be allowed to carry on indefinitely, or the service to the community will undoubtedly be eroded year on year. A fully funded police pension budget must be provided separately from the operational budget.
The use of a formula as a means of allocation to police forces within the overall police settlement is clearly not working adequately. The majority of forces are now given protection from reduced allocations because of the formula under rule 1. The amount of protection for the North Wales police under this rule for 1997–98 is £733,000. There can be no guarantee that that protection will continue in subsequent years. The formula needs a thorough review as a matter of great urgency. It impacts badly on the North Wales police, but I have no doubt that it impacts on every other police force as well.
In summary—I know that other hon. Members are anxious to speak—1997–98 will be a difficult year for the North Wales police, because of the restricted growth in the budget. The costs of the child inquiry compound that problem. The force has a firm commitment to improving front-line officer numbers and their efficiency and safety, but the necessary funds are not available. There is concern about the long-term consequences of funding changes, particularly if the damping provisions are removed too rapidly. Capital funding has reduced the force to below subsistence level.
This is an urgent call from a responsible, cost-effective police force. It has an excellent record which is second to none. The concerns are about maintaining that excellence. If the Government are serious about crime, they have a golden opportunity to assist the people of north Wales, and my constituency in particular. I hope that they will talk to representatives of the police authority over the coming weeks and that these real concerns will be met with proper, detailed and responsible action on behalf of the people of north Wales.
§ Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I was also pleased to hear the cogent and well-informed speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael).
The not inconsiderable sum of £35,695,797 has been granted to the North Wales police authority. The formula used by the Government to calculate that sum is quite algebraic. Some of the headings include residents in lone parent families, total unemployment figures, long-term unemployment figures and young male unemployment figures, as well as a reference to sparsity. All those factors are good reasons why the North Wales police authority should have a substantial Government grant.
I should like to emphasise strongly that the North Wales police authority has a particular problem currently—the public inquiry on child abuse in north Wales being chaired by Judge Ronald Waterhouse QC. The inquiry is due to continue for more than a year. It is putting serious pressure on the North Wales police authority—so much so that I fear that, if the authority 469 has to find the substantial sums needed to cope with the challenge of that inquiry, operational provision may be reduced and the financial embarrassment of the police force will be considerable. I make my special plea to the Minister to ask her Department to think again about how it can help the North Wales police authority with the inquiry, which places a heavy burden on it.
I pay my own tribute to the police authority. It is a good authority—its leadership is good and its officers are good. From my experience as a constituency member, there is no doubt in my mind that the force wishes to help the people whom it has the duty to serve. I shall be the first to say that, as a Member of Parliament, I get a good service from it.
North Wales is a far-flung area, stretching from Aberdovey in the south-west to Prestatyn in the north-east, and from Holyhead to Saltney in my constituency. That is a large tract of land. In it there is mountainous and estuarial terrain. There are deeply rural as well as urban areas, and a bilingual police force is required. There are great pressures on budgets, and chief constables and other senior police officers are examining extremely carefully how they might continue the services that they provide—they cannot increase them—given the proposed grant and the fact that the child abuse inquiry will continue for longer than a year.
There have recently been closures of police stations in my constituency, such as those in the villages of Broughton, Sandycroft and Caergwrle. Those communities have been deprived of the direct assistance of their police station. As a consequence, I have received representations from town and community councils as well as from voluntary organisations and pensioner associations on Deeside.
It would be churlish, however, not to say that the recently formed community police stations are making a good stab at providing a comprehensive service to my constituents on Deeside and in Buckley, but there is anxiety, and some resentment, in the villages that have been deprived of police stations. I have not been able to assuage those responses to the closures.
My constituents believe that there should be more uniformed officers—more than now appear—who should be seen more regularly. We are, however, grateful in my constituency for what we have in the urban area of Deeside and the township of Buckley. We want to see more uniformed officers in the housing estates and in shopping areas. Without doubt, there is growing anxiety among the communities that I represent. That anxiety reflects the crimes that are committed. There are worries especially among young mothers and those who would describe themselves as retired and drawing pensions.
There is an increasing and comprehensive problem. No village is unaffected by drug and substance abuse. That is a worrying development, and it is arguably a problem throughout the nation. There is much anti-social behaviour in my constituency, involving neighbours on most of the estates. There is increasing vandalism, break-ins are regular and youngsters are often more than disrespectful to pensioners. Pensioners complain to me of foul-mouthed abuse from youths and even from young children. Burglaries are increasing and there is a fair incidence of violent crime. Only last year, in the township of Shotton, there was an armed bank robbery There was a successful outcome to the case, but I wish to respond to the anxiety in my communities and in others.
470 If there is to be less anxiety and more successful crime protection, I urge the Government further to consider their employment policies. If more real jobs were available to school leavers—if young people had the guarantee of access to real jobs that would pay a living wage rather than temporary jobs—I have no doubt that there would be less crime. The Government should tackle the problems of long-term and youth unemployment with more determination. They need more realistic policies on training and should provide better investment for education, which would lead to less crime by young people.
I have spoken of a climate of fear and anxiety, which can be tackled only by more visible policing and fairer funding for police authorities, not least the excellent North Wales police authority.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
The settlement will not meet the known needs of the police service. The increase in the total standard spending assessment is £220 million, but the local authority associations estimate that the inescapable costs of the continuing employment of existing police officers and staff mean that the increase needed is higher—at least £250 million. That would not allow for the pressures on the police that require additional expenditure, including the cost of the DNA database, the increased workload and the demand for more closed circuit television, which can be a valuable crime-fighting resource.
We have recently heard absurd reports that tens of thousands of speeding motorists are escaping prosecution because the police cannot afford to put film in roadside cameras. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also made that point—and the cost of pursuing the cases presents a further deterrent. Some £40 million of the grant is the next instalment of the extra money that is supposed to provide an extra 5,000 police officers. In many forces, no extra officers will be provided because of the other pressures on police budgets.
As has been said, the effect of the settlement will be a shift in the source of the money to fund the police from the Government to council tax payers. The Government's funding increase averages just over 2 per cent., which is well below the 3.2 per cent. maximum increase in police authority budgets permitted under the capping rules. The intention is to make the Government look good at the expense of local authorities. That is demonstrated by the way in which the Government gloss over the point in their press releases. For example, Dorset police intend to spend at capping level in the coming year, and expenditure will therefore rise by about 3.2 per cent. The result for the council tax payer will be an increase of around 10 per cent. in what they paid towards the police last year. Each council tax payer will pay £63—an increase of more than £5.50 on last year—and the Government should make that clear. Government statements about finances should be explicit and honest, but perhaps that is asking too much.
There is a further reason why the additional funding will not result in the total number of extra officers that the Government have promised. They estimate that every extra police officer costs £20,000: the cost is nearer £23,000. Even if all the additional grant could be used for extra officers, it would provide only an extra 2,600 police officers In Warwickshire, the cuts of £6 million for the 471 1995–96 financial year are still being felt—59 fewer officers since 1992—and the police authority has been unable to replace retiring officers since it was formed in 1995.
Hampshire police are determined to recruit more police officers. Last year that meant that they more than reached the Government's target for extra police officers. This year, however, medium-term financial insecurity means that they will be unable to recruit extra officers. Some £2.8 million of Hampshire's money will be spent on pensions, and the authority will also be seriously affected by the cuts in capital expenditure. Nationally, pensions now amount to an eighth of police spending. The grant, which will have an uneven impact, will present severe budget problems for many police authorities. I am glad that the Minister recognised that, and I hope that she will continue to work on that troublesome aspect of budgeting in the police service.
Capital grants and credit approvals will be cut by £20 million, which represents a 10.4 per cent. decrease—following the 11 per cent. reduction in the current year. That can have a serious effect on revenue budgets because it prevents beneficial efficiency savings and the police authorities' maintaining their capital infrastructure to improve efficiency and enable police officers to deliver an effective service to the public.
In this year's formula, we have not only rule 1 but rule 3—a new feature of the funding formula. The additional rules work against the claim that the settlement takes full account of objectively assessed needs in each police area. Rule 3 has a quite different effect. Northumbria police lose £3 million as a result of the application of rules 1 and 3. That represents a lot of police officers, equipment and crime fighting. If the Home Secretary believes that there is a problem with the formula, he should alter it on an objective basis, not fiddle around with it or manipulate it at will. The formula will have a very significant effect on council tax. It looks as if the Home Secretary can devise additional rules so as to smile on one police authority and frown on another.
The outlook for police funding is very bleak because the drift of Government policy is to shift expenditure on to prisons. Not only does overcrowding call for the building of a series of new prisons, which the Government have accepted, but the Crime (Sentences) Bill will require a further 12 prisons. All such expenditure is likely to be at the expense of other Home Office services, including the police. Although it is very unlikely indeed that present Ministers will be in power in years to come, we are contemplating a rapid decline in police funding.
Ministers make much of the possibilities of using private finance. We may use the private finance initiative for police stations or have sponsored police cars with the sponsor's logo on the side. All that is of course beneath the dignity of the Queen's yacht, but it is not supposed to be beneath the dignity of the keeper of the Queen's peace. The Government have yet to develop a consistent attitude to what areas of public service are appropriate either for the PFI or, even more important, for sponsorship, which they regard as acceptable in the police service. Sponsorship especially presents potential dangers.
The reality for those of us who are especially concerned to see more police officers on the beat is that their number fell by almost 1,000 between 1992 and 1996. Whatever 472 the Government can inject in an attempt to recover lost ground does not detract from the fact that they did not deliver what they promised in 1992 and will not be able to deliver the reality of the Prime Minister's promise.
Such a point was vividly brought out and carefully documented by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael)—all the research and information was apparent. It took a number of interventions to underline the fact that his speech was, however, misleading, in that the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has made it clear that, under Labour, nothing will be any different; nothing will change. He has taken the view, on wider grounds, that there can be no change in Government spending plans. I am afraid that the implication of speeches that constantly attack the insufficiency of resources must be that more resources will be found from somewhere. That has been the drift of the speeches of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, but Labour cannot go on getting away with that.
§ Mr. Michael
I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman will go on to make his own party's spending commitments for the police and other things. I simply do not accept that nothing will change. The amount of money available will certainly not change, but what will change under a Labour Government is, first, honesty about how we deal with such matters, and secondly, the priorities of tackling the problems of crime that have been exacerbated by the Government's policies—visibly, considering the mountain of crime that has been created since they came to power. Those two changes will make a great deal of difference.
§ Mr. Beith
I should be delighted if the hon. Gentleman or, indeed, any member of any party in any future Government was able to meet the first of those commitments, and Government press releases honestly stated what was happening. That is a very desirable objective, which I entirely endorse. Changing priorities require the placing of additional resources in particular areas, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It would make a great deal of difference to fighting crime, especially youth crime, if we spent more money on education, as I am sure he agrees. That is another area in which the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East has made it clear that no more money can be committed.
§ Mr. Michael
Education is one of Labour's five specific commitments. Another is to provide jobs and opportunities for young people in the 18 to 25 age group. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that that would make a significant contribution to the environment in which—
§ Mr. Beith
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The drift of speeches that say that there are insufficient resources for the police must be a preparedness to commit more resources to them. In pursuit of the hon. Gentleman's policy of honesty about statements on public finance, he should say that Labour could not find any more money, so the only improvements that it could achieve would be in spending existing money in different ways. That involves pretty uncomfortable resource decisions.
473 The Liberal Democrats have made a specific commitment to finding the money that would be required to recruit a further 1,000 police officers. I do not claim that we can solve all the other problems that have been identified in speeches tonight. Unless some extra resources are delivered to the police, the promises made by both the other parties will not be fulfilled.
The diversion of resources from the police into the prison system, which I criticised as part of the drift of Government policy, also applies to the Labour party, which has supported much of the legislation that would bring it about.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The right hon. Gentleman has honestly said that he would increase the number of police officers even further, and has acknowledged that that would have resource implications. Has he calculated how great those implications would be, and how does he intend to raise the money?
§ Mr. Beith
We would need about £100 million, and every one of our Budget presentations in the past two years has set out ways in which we would fund it. The commitment is specific, and in the run-up to the election we will do the costings again and demonstrate precisely how it would be done. It is not an enormous commitment, but we think that it is cost-effective and addresses the need sensed by the public to have more police officers available in communities, to deter crime and restore confidence, and not to do so in such a way that they are constantly being recalled into other parts of the hard-pressed police service.
In many a force, the efforts at community policing are constantly undermined by the desperate need to withdraw officers for other duties. We need a more settled system of community policing than that, and we have made a commitment to ensure that that is achieved.
§ Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
The people of Merseyside are deeply worried about the way in which the new system of police grant allocation has adversely affected their area. The Minister will be well aware of that, as many representations were made in the past financial year about the problems facing the area in the transition from the old to the new system.
Merseyside has in the past two years suffered a significant reduction—more than 400—in the number of officers that it can employ, despite the fact that the precept paid by local people has risen 50 per cent. in the past three years. Taking account of the settlement that the Minister announced tonight, which assumes a 16.9 per cent. increase for the financial year 1997–98, Merseyside council tax payers—the people of Wirral, as well as the four other local authorities—will be paying the third largest precept in the country.
It is the fastest rising precept in the country—because of the particular problems of Merseyside police, of which the Minister will be well aware. Some are technical and concern the way in which pensions are funded; others concern the decline in population that Merseyside has experienced pretty consistently over the past 20 years, without experiencing any decrease in crime. There has been a 41 per cent. increase in crime in the area since 1979.
Many people will be aware of the difficulties faced by the chief constable in the Liverpool area over the past couple of years. There has been a substantial increase in 474 drug and gang-related crime, and an alarming increase in the use of firearms. Figures from the House of Commons Library show that crime in the Merseyside area is 8 per cent. higher than the national average. The increase in violent crime is 33 per cent. above the national average. The nature of that crime—drug-related, gangland-related and drug wars, with people gunned down in the street—requires a particular response, which is expensive of resources if law and order is properly to be kept.
The high level of crime has a particularly difficult effect on other, perhaps quieter areas of the Merseyside region, such as mine on the Wirral peninsula. Officers who are an increasingly scarce resource are drafted over the river to help with incidents and emergencies. I shall give one example of how the loss of more than 400 officers in the past two years has affected the situation on the ground. A constituent who contacted me recently had been awakened one night by banging on her front door. She went out and realised that a young woman was being attacked and had fled to the front of her house for help. She got the woman inside to safety and called the police. She had a hysterical woman who had been subjected to a nasty physical assault on her hands. It took the police 45 minutes to respond, not because they wanted to take 45 minutes to respond to emergency calls, but simply because they did not have the officers.
I contacted a local superintendent about that incident. He revealed to me that, in Wallasey, the staffing level on the night shift was two sergeants and 15 constables. If there is a serious incident somewhere else in the Merseyside area, those police officers are diverted there. That leaves local commanders little ability to respond to incidents in my constituency and areas such as Wirral, South where people have particular difficulties. My constituents and the people of the Wirral are worried that, under the Government's funding formula, they are being asked to pay a greater share of the cost of their police force through the council tax, but less money is directed to put officers on the beat to protect them. They are paying a great deal more and getting less cover for it.
As I am concerned about crime as an issue, I conducted a crime survey in my constituency. Another has been conducted in Wirral, South. The response was interesting. It demonstrated what people at the receiving end of the announcements that the Minister made in the House tonight think about the service that they receive.
My survey was of more than 600 people, so it was a reasonable size. Of the respondents, 71 per cent. felt vulnerable all or some of the time in public places. In Wirral, South the figure was 53 per cent. In Wallasey, 37 per cent. felt vulnerable in their own homes. Interestingly, the figure for Wirral was 42 per cent.—more people there felt vulnerable in their own home. In Wallasey, 30 per cent. of respondents said that they had been a victim of crime in the past two years and 83 per cent. had reported those crimes to the police. In Wirral, South, 49 per cent. of people had been a victim of crime in the past two years. In my constituency, just 8 per cent. of the victims were aware that an arrest had been made for the crimes committed against them. In Wirral, South the figure was much lower—only 5 per cent.
People realise that crime is increasing—they are increasingly victims of it. They also know that detection rates are falling and that they are expected to pay more in 475 council tax for a police service that is less and less likely to be able to provide the number of officers necessary for their safety.
The overwhelming view of the people in both Wirral, South and Wallasey who responded to the surveys was that they wanted more police on the beat as a way of deterring the pettier forms of crime and to reassure them that there is a reasonable degree of law and order in their community. During the past two years, the result of the Conservative party's funding of the police service in Merseyside has been that, although people have wanted more police on the beat and paid more for them, they have actually had fewer.
What is expected to happen up to 2000 as a result of the progressive introduction of the new police funding formula, which the Minister's statement introduces for another year, is an additional loss of more than 200 police officers, and some support staff going as well. Those figures are not made up—they come directly from the chief constable's forward budget plans. Because of the injustices to the Merseyside police force inherent in the settlement, we are to expect a loss of revenue of £16 million by 2000–01. My constituents find it hard to understand why they must pay more but get less; and why, as crime levels rise, as levels of violent crime rise, and as people's fear of crime rises, our ability to respond to it, to reassure them and to stamp it out is falling.
That does not sit well with much of the Conservative party's rhetoric about crime, and it is on that record that they will be judged in the coming election and by-election. I want the Minister to give assurances that she will examine the particular problems facing Merseyside because of the way in which the funding formula has been introduced and because we have particular disadvantages resulting from the structure of the force that we had, which the funding formula fails to recognise. Of course we welcome the acknowledgement of the problems with funding pensions, but there are other difficulties, such as higher levels of violent crime and crimes that are difficult to solve, labour intensive and require immediate responses from officers on the ground, thus drawing them away from other places.
The people of Merseyside will judge the Government on how they listen to the problems of funding Merseyside police that I am outlining tonight when they come to decide how serious the Conservative party is about doing the best it can to obviate the huge increases in crime over which it has presided during its many years in office.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I should have liked to say that this has been an interesting debate, but what has been most interesting is that it has exposed the utter sham of Labour's policy. Labour Members have spent the entire debate criticising resources, yet, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) rightly pointed out, at the same time they admit that they would not make any extra money available.
§ Mr. Michael
The whole purpose of our remarks has been to expose the fact that the Government are pretending that they are providing resources to the police, but that they have not provided resources to the police, 476 are not providing resources to the police and are not providing the increased police numbers promised by the Prime Minister. They are failing.
§ Miss Widdecombe
It is a fact of life that we now have 16,000 more officers than we had when the Labour party was in power. It is a fact of life that the Labour party, which criticises us for the resources we provide but which does not promise any more, in the last two years of its last term of office—which, I am sure, the entire nation remembers with horror—decreased spending on the police in real terms, first, by 5.5 per cent. and then by an additional 0.5 per cent. We need no lessons from the Labour party on resourcing the police.
Labour Members say, "It is unfair that the council tax payer is bearing some of the burden," but central Government bear between 80 and 85 per cent. Do we assume that the council tax payer would pay less towards the police in the highly unlikely event that there was ever a Labour Government?
§ Mr. Michael
The hon. Lady is back in opposition mode, asking questions. I said that the Home Secretary has pretended to provide resources to the police but has not done so. He is providing an increase to the police that does not keep pace with inflation. He is making local authorities find the money for the police. Does she not understand the figures that she is speaking to?
§ Miss Widdecombe
I fully understand the figures, but we do not appear to have heard, amidst the large amount of criticism, a clear statement of what the Labour party would do. We have no idea whether the council tax payer would pay less under Labour. [Interruption.] The problem with the Opposition is that they are deluding themselves that they will soon be sitting on the Government Benches, so they are afraid of putting flesh on the bones of what they say, but they cannot quite get out of the habit. They tell the people of Britain that we are not resourcing the police properly when they will not commit themselves to paying a penny more than us.
There have been many calls for this debate to be fairly reflected elsewhere. I hope that that point is made repeatedly, because it is high time that the people of Britain sussed out the con trick that Labour Members are playing.
§ Mr. Michael
The con trick is the one that the hon. Lady is trying to play on the people of the country. The con trick, to use her term, is a Prime Minister who promises 1,000 extra police officers and does not deliver—who promises 5,000 extra police officers and does not provide the resources. That is the con trick that the Government are trying to play on the people of the country. It is a disgrace, and they have been nailed in the debate tonight.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Far short of being nailed, I demonstrated clearly that we did provide the extra funding. I showed that the number of officers increased by 845 or so in that year. The trouble is that the hon. Gentleman, wanting to complain about resources but being unable to promise extra resources, not knowing 477 which other way to turn, simply flatly denies every fact that I give him but has no evidence to back up what he says.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I have heard enough nonsense. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not like nonsense, because I like sense to be talked in the House. The hon. Gentleman is right that I do not like the nonsense that he talks, and I do not intend to listen to much more of it tonight.
§ Mr. Michael
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it appropriate for the hon. Lady to refer to Home Office figures for which she is responsible as "nonsense"?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The Minister is responsible for her own speech, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The trouble is that the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) cannot understand what he is being told. The nonsense that I was referring to was that which is being talked by the Opposition tonight, not by the Government.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth had the gall to say that violent crime was up. If Labour is so worried about violent crime, why did its Members abstain on the Crime (Sentences) Bill only a couple of weeks ago? Why did they vote against increasing penalties for taking a gun to the scene of a crime? If they are so worried about violent crime, given that much of it is drugs related, why did not they support the Bill's provisions on mandatory sentences for those peddling drugs?
§ Mr. Michael
The hon. Lady is asking questions again. Why was there nothing about crime, violence or guns in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was supposed to be a landmark Act, until Labour moved amendments to it? She is wrong. We have set the agenda on these issues. The Government have repeatedly voted down Labour proposals to deal with violent crime and these issues. The Minister just repeats the mantra, and she is wrong.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The Labour agenda on crime is to say one thing and vote in the Lobby for something quite different. The only difference this time is that, instead of voting with their feet, Labour Members sat on their hands. They could not even make up their minds what they wanted to do. The hon. Gentleman knows that his party is all talk and no do when the time comes to deliver on the measures.
A number of interesting remarks were made in the debate, including several about Merseyside. Some of those were also made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, and I answered them. Other interesting comments related to north Wales. It was pointed out that there is already a substantial increase in resources for 478 north Wales. I take the point about the problem of the child abuse inquiry, but it is open to the North Wales police to apply to the Home Office if extra expenditure is incurred. That serious matter was raised by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). Further serious points were raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who has apologised for not being able to be present for the rest of the debate.
I have heard nothing from the Opposition tonight that convinces me that they even understand the figures or the problems of crime, or that they have the will to do anything about it. Everything that Labour Front Benchers have said tonight, with the exception of one or two detailed points made by hon. Members behind the Front Bench, has been geared to one message: we do not like what the Government are doing, but we will do the same ourselves, although we will not vote that way in the meantime because we cannot make up our minds. Their approach is a shambles and a sham.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 1997–98 (HC 208), which was laid before this House on 27th January, be approved.