HC Deb 30 November 1998 vol 321 cc525-7
5. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

If he will make a statement on his spending plans for the police service for each of the next three years. [61093]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

Following the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, I announced on 21 July our plans to allow police spending to increase by 2.65 per cent. next year, by up to a further 2.8 per cent. in the following year and by up to an extra 4 per cent. in 2001–02. That represents an extra £1.24 billion over the next three years. Part of the additional funding for the second and third years will be dependent on the police achieving targets for efficiency improvements of 2 per cent. a year.

Mr. Fraser

Will the Home Secretary join me in congratulating Dorset police, who have reduced crime to 1990 levels? Does he recognise the concerns that were expressed to me by the chief constable in Dorset, who said that funding increases would barely pay for pensions in the forthcoming year, let alone maintain the police service? What can the Home Secretary say or do to allay his fears and those of my constituents?

Mr. Straw

I am certainly happy to congratulate the chief constable and his officers on what has been achieved in Dorset and to provide reassurance. First, the settlement that I announced in July amounts to a real-terms, albeit modest, increase in police spending for each of those years. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues must acknowledge that there is ample scope for economies and efficiency savings in the police service. That has already been demonstrated by the way in which police services have had to deal with sickness and early retirement.

The best advice that I can give to the chief constable and the police authority in Dorset is to apply themselves to the still unimplemented recommendations of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which give huge scope not only for making efficiency savings, but for increasing the effectiveness of the police service within the budgets that we have set.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent announcement, which adds up to a reasonably generous settlement for the police. At the same time, may I encourage a thorough review of all police force management structures? Is it not about time that we started thinking the unthinkable on how to get better value for money out of top-quality managers and good management techniques in the police force—even, perhaps, abolishing the notion of chief constables for a more modern management structure that delivers the goods to the British public?

Mr. Straw

I have no proposals to abolish the posts of chief constables. What we need, and on the whole have, are highly experienced and skilled professionals at the head of the police service. I accept the rest of my hon. Friend's question; it is not thinking the unthinkable. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities accept the case for a better career and training structure in the upper levels of the police service. On top of changes to improve the effectiveness of the police service, we shall be ensuring that best-value arrangements apply to it.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the statistical section of the House of Commons Library that, between 1979 and 1997, there was a real increase of 72 per cent. in spending on the police, which meant an increase in police strength of 15,000? Under his plans, there will be no real increase in spending whatever between 1997 and 2001. Does that not mean an inevitable reduction in the strength of police forces?

Mr. Straw

What I will accept, not from the Library of the House but from the Official Report, is that there is no case whatever for the Opposition to lecture us about the £1.24 billion increase in police spending because, far from criticising us for spending too little, the shadow Chancellor—the right hon. Gentleman may have been asleep when his right hon. Friend said this, and one can understand why—has been criticising us for spending too much. Indeed, he described this spending settlement as "reckless". The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) must spell out by how much he would reduce police budgets if he were in power.

Sir Norman Fowler

I will not take lectures from the right hon. Gentleman on controlling public spending, as he knows only too well. Does he not understand that he has reduced the financial commitment to the police service? There are reports from around the country that the strength of police forces is falling, and will fall further. How does he square that with his boast to be tough on crime?

Mr. Straw

Police service numbers fell by 500 between 1992 and 1997. It is my duty to point out the Opposition's double standards. I have here a wodge of letters that I have written to the right hon. Gentleman over the past four weeks, all of which are unanswered, in which I have asked him to say exactly by how much police spending would fall following his right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor's criticism of our spending, not for being too little but for being too much.

Moreover, I have here a little-known work, "Ministers Decide", which was originally priced at £18, but was knocked down, first to £2 and then to £1, and was picked up by a friend of mine. In it, a Mr. Norman Fowler, as he was then, says: The trouble with some of those who make much of their support for— a particular public service— is that they also oppose any measures taken to make it more effective. The right hon. Gentleman was talking about the health service, but his criticism applies equally to the police service.

Sir Norman Fowler

The trouble with this Secretary of State is that he is not deciding; this Minister is simply going along with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's plans. He challenges me on public spending, but does he not know that the changes that I made to the state earnings-related pension scheme will mean eventual public spending savings of £30 billion? I am not prepared to take lectures from the right hon. Gentleman.

Let the Home Secretary stop wriggling and return to the subject of the police. Why will he not admit that his plans will entail the reduction of the police service and police forces throughout the country?

Mr. Straw

The most lasting part of the right hon. Gentleman's epitaph will be the other thing that he did to SERPs—which was to set up portable personal pensions, by which hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country were defrauded by private insurance companies. I have spelt it out in answers to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the spending increases that we have proposed will result in a modest but real increase in spending, year on year. That is the truth. The other truth, which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) cannot gainsay, is that, were he in power, and were he following the opinion of his right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor, spending on the police, as on other public services, would decrease.