HC Deb 07 July 1999 vol 334 cc966-88

11 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

May I say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how grateful I am to have secured this debate. I thank the Minister of State for visiting the National Missing Persons Helpline, of which I am a trustee. Those who work for the helpline very much enjoyed the visit and hope that something constructive will come out of it.

Since my election to Beckenham, the subject of police numbers and the link with police funding has come up constantly. I am sure that many of my hon. Friends and Labour Members also get a lot of complaints from people who say that they do not see enough police on the beat. Often, constituents do not link that subject with reduced crime figures or the sophisticated arguments about how intelligence-led policing is changing the nature of policing.

In Bromley, of which Beckenham is a part, we have an active police consultative committee and sector working parties, which constantly discuss police numbers and funding. In the annual report for last year, which was published in June, the committee chairman states: During the last three years, I cannot recall a year when there has not been underfunding to cover the cost of maintaining the existing strength of the police with inevitable cuts in the service in one way or another. This year the increase in the annual budget for the Metropolitan Police is to be 1.7 per cent. which is below the national average increase of 2.7 per cent. It again falls short of what is needed to cover the increase in police pay and pensions and the rise in inflation. In past years there has been a steady reduction in the number of uniformed officers in the Bromley area to cope with inadequate funding. His comments are backed up by Bromley division's own figures. Its manpower target strengths, to use the jargon, have gone from 497 police in the borough and the division—the two are co-terminus—in November 1994 to 440 this year. Civilianisation has not replaced the uniformed copper. In November 1994, there were 121 civilian staff. This year, the figure is down to 113, so the numbers of both groups have dropped.

Penge, which is in my constituency, has been identified by Bromley police in a much-admired document on crime and disorder, as a high-risk area. Last April, the inspector in charge told the Penge sector working party: we have 9 Community Action Team Officers for community policing between Crystal Palace and Coney Hall"— another area of my constituency— with several having 2/3 council wards to patrol on foot. As hon. Members know, in particular those who represent cities, that is a large area to cover. The inspector continued: There are 3 high street patrols, in Penge, Beckenham and West Wickham. Some people may think that leafy Bromley borough and Beckenham should reduce their police numbers to help in other parts of the Greater London area where crime levels are higher. However, the authentic voice of the Beckenham resident wrote to the Home Secretary and to me at the end of 1998. He pointed out that there has been growing disquiet among members of the public concerning the near-absence of uniformed officers patrolling the streets on a routine basis… During the past two or three years there appears to have been a reduction in real terms". He is absolutely right. Figures provided by the Metropolitan police show that, since 1995, that force has reduced from 27,945 to 26,563 this year. Indeed, when I was on the Metropolitan police parliamentary scheme along with two Labour Members, one of whom is here today, the story everywhere was the same and I am sure that the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) will agree. The police are concerned about cuts in manpower, old equipment and buildings that need refurbishment.

The pattern is repeated nationally. It is happening not merely in Bromley or in the Met, but throughout the country. Just last week, on 30 June, a Home Office press release stated: Numbers of police officers have fallen by 793 to 123,922 in the year ending March 1999—a reduction of less than 1 per cent. The first sentence of that press release shows the Home Office's sensitivity about linking police funding with police numbers. That sentence reads: The number of police officers has fallen despite increased police spending". I can understand and appreciate why the Home Office is going to such lengths to decouple funding and police numbers. Linked with that issue is the reduction in crime. We all congratulate the police on reducing crime, but most of us would agree that other issues have contributed to that reduction. When employment is high, there tends to be a reduction in crime.

The Audit Commission has backed up the Home Office and I can understand where it is coming from. It says that some forces have higher clear-up rates and lower numbers of police relatively and/or smaller budgets—

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

The Audit Commission supports the view that there is no direct correlation between numbers of officers and amounts of crime. On the last occasion on which we debated the matter in the House, 18 March, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said, unusually: However, I rather agree with the Home Secretary on that point. I do not think that there is a direct correlation between police numbers and crime."—[Official Report, 18 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 1277.] Does the hon. Lady agree with her right hon. Friend?

Mrs. Lait

If the hon. Lady listens to the rest of my speech, she will understand my argument. It is difficult to disagree with the Audit Commission's figures, which show that smaller forces may have smaller budgets and higher clear-up rates. Indeed, the Audit Commission has compared like with like: it has compared one rural force with another and found differences in clear-up rates; it has also compared one inner-city area with another and found differences. Statistically, I do not disagree, but the problem is that the British public and police forces themselves do not make that link. I suspect that the better clear-up rates reflect both good management and historic spending patterns. As I pointed out, the problem is that the public and the police do not believe it.

As I said, the consultative committee in Bromley regularly links underfunding with lack of police numbers. When we toured various operations under the parliamentary scheme, we were told time after time by the police, from the constable on the beat to the inspector in charge of any police station, that cuts in funding were leading to reduced numbers.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

One can always bandy statistics about, but for the first time in many years, there has been a cut in police manpower and in auxiliaries in Dorset and, for the first time in five years, crime has increased. That shows that criminals, at least, think that it is now safer to commit crimes in Dorset because fewer police and fewer resources are coming from this Government.

Mrs. Lait

I would not go so far as to argue that, but it is an interesting point. One is conscious that hardened criminals are as astute and aware of the potential for crime and not getting caught as the general public are aware that, as they believe, there are not enough police on the streets.

The constables will describe the increased pressure that they are under because of what they believe are shortages in numbers on patrol. One of their principal concerns is that, when they are in trouble—they could easily suddenly find themselves in a fracas on a hot day like today, when people's tempers are short—there might not be sufficient back-up to help them out of it. Indeed, that already happens. If the police feel vulnerable and lose confidence, they will not do their job to the best of their ability and constituents will complain.

As I said to the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), I acknowledge the argument—I am sure that she shares it—that modern and effective policing is intelligence-led. It is effective and it works. We have seen how successful Operation Bumblebee has been, for example, in targeting criminals and ensuring that continual troublemakers are taken off the streets or warned that they are being watched. Intelligence-led policing contributes enormously to modern policing, but I return to the fact that the British public do not believe that it is working because they do not see police on the streets.

The Police Federation also does not see police on the streets. Fred Broughton, the chairman, was quoted in The Guardian of 18 May. The article said: Violent crime has increased because police forces are having to cut the number of officers on the beat. Mr. Broughton said successes in tackling burglary and car crime had been bought at the cost of a failure to patrol the streets. 'It is clear to every force that the uniformed presence is reducing on a monthly basis. That is while the government and chief police officers are talking about an alternative. All the indications are that it will get worse.'

Ms Blears

The hon. Lady has made the point that intelligence-led policing works, but that the public do not believe that crime is being tackled unless they see bobbies on the beat. If she accepts the argument that there are better ways in which to spend our resources to tackle crime, is she in favour of spending money on, say, a medicine that does not work simply because the public believe that it does? Is it not her task and our's to lay out the facts and convince the public of what actually works in tackling crime—contrary to their perception? It is surely down to people such as us to play a role in ensuring that the public believe such things.

Mr. Ian Bruce

They do not in Dorset.

Mrs. Lait

As my hon. Friend says, people in Dorset do not believe it—nor do people in Bromley, the Police Federation or, as I am about to quote, the Association of Chief Police Officers.

John Newing said that the 1999–2000 settlement leaves the Police Service well short of what it needs. Even though the Home Office has said that the 2 per cent. efficiency savings can be reinvested, and even though the police forces can keep the income from property sales, the forces are facing the need to spend much more money on new communications systems.

Anyone who has been into a police station will have seen the variety of computers and how they are not linked to one another. Work is duplicated because the custody officer may enter information into one computer, while upstairs the detectives are putting the same information into another system. That shows the need to spend money on communications. I am not arguing about the need for that; however, the public must also be reassured. If they are not, the whole basis of policing by the consent of the community will disappear.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the phenomenal clear-up rate of the Victorian police force was primarily not because their methods were less fastidious, but because they lived in, and were part of, the community that they policed? As we have withdrawn forces into almost fortress-like police stations and police officers into panda cars, we have lost the proximity of the community, which was the source of success.

Mrs. Lait

I can see my hon. Friend's point, although the whole purpose of the Scarman and subsequent reports was to try to develop the role of the community police officer, who builds up the intelligence that was enjoyed by the Victorian police force. We have not lost that form of policing; the problem is that we do not have sufficient police officers to be able to conduct it as effectively as one would wish. That is why I am linking the two subjects—even though the Home Office and the Audit Commission doubt the correlation between police funding and numbers. Such a link needs to be made because we must ensure policing with the consent of the community.

I pointed out the need for new communications systems and the cost of them. There is also the cost of the pensions problem facing all police forces. We must acknowledge what a large proportion of their budgets is going on pensions—about 17 per cent. in the Metropolitan police and 20 per cent. in Greater Manchester. Obviously, if we were starting again, we would not start from here. A pay-as-you-go pension fund and an historic inability to control it has left forces with a huge demand on their slender resources. John Newing said last week that if additional funds are not forthcoming, there will have to be cuts in the numbers of officers in operational roles.

As a great believer in the development of the pensions industry and the provision that we have managed to create, I would say that it is time for the Home Office and police forces to get to grips with the pay-as-you-go pension scheme and reform it. That would be a most effective way of reducing the pressure on budgets. I know that that will not be easy and that it is a very long-term solution, but it should certainly be considered closely.

Despite the demands on budgets for things such as communications systems and pensions, I return time and again to the importance of the Home Office recognising the inextricable link in the minds of the British public between funding and proper staffing. The public cannot believe that there is no such correlation. As I have—I hope—shown, nor can many who work in the police, even when crime is coming under control. The position has clearly worsened recently and the forecasts are deeply pessimistic.

The police force is in a unique position to make its views known and clear to every member of the public. That will only reinforce the public's fears. The police, particularly if they are involved in community policing, are talking day in, day out to our constituents. If they are fearful of their future, they will make the public—our constituents—fearful, too.

The Home Office must ensure that the public are reassured that the thin blue line will hold. At present, the public believe that the line is under significant pressure. I very much hope that the Minister can reassure us that there will be a greater police presence on the streets, so reassuring our constituents.

11.18 am
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am pleased to participate in this important debate. I shall restrict most of my remarks to the issue of funding.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) realised that the crux of the apparent contradiction is due mainly to the perception of crime. In the past couple of days, the Women's Institute has referred to the importance of police on the beat in rural areas. However, that is not necessarily the same as catching criminals. We must ensure that we put resources where they really count, and invest in intelligence and the most effective policing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) made clear. I should be worried if we went away from the debate believing that the contradiction was easy to solve. The Government have got the balance right. I shall explain how that can be enhanced and how it can be made clearer to our constituents that the funding situation is right and reasonable.

I shall restrict most of my remarks to funding, which is at the core of the debate. I have been engaged in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister about the needs of Gloucestershire. We shall be having a meeting shortly to discuss those matters in greater detail. It was a little disingenuous of the hon. Member for Beckenham to refer to the pensions problem, because the Conservative Government signally failed to grapple with the issue. They have left us an incredibly difficult legacy. Let us be honest. No police organisation wants to renegotiate the pensions situation, because they could not get a better deal. I may be wrong on some of the details, but I believe that a police constable retiring from the force today after 30 years' service would take about £60,000 in cash, plus half his current salary. With the best will in the world, that cannot be improved by a renegotiation of the pension terms. However, we shall have to deal with that dilemma.

I do not want to speak for very long, because I know that others want to contribute to the debate. Many factors, including the pension situation, affect the funding requirements. I am grateful to the Government for addressing Gloucestershire's funding problems in respect of the number of royal households in the country. The problem with the 2 per cent. efficiency savings is that they have to be found from those areas, as well as from the wider budget. That causes us some grief in Gloucestershire. Perhaps that requirement should be reconsidered.

We need to fund policing properly, but we must also ensure that we are policing in the right way. We welcome the progress on the public safety radio communications project—a phrase that does not slip off the tongue easily—but we have to find a means of funding it, which is difficult. In Gloucestershire, there will be an annual leasing cost of £750,000, which is the equivalent of 40 police constables. I hope that the Government will come up with some good news on that. It is a project that we not merely want, but have, to implement. Gloucestershire has been bedevilled by a problem of hills. The communications network has never functioned properly, because people on one side of the Cotswolds cannot communicate with those on the other side. I try to go out with the local police on a Friday night. They have to switch wavelength regularly because that is the only way in which they can communicate with each other. That is a bit ramshackle at the end of the 20th century, when we are looking for the most effective way to deal with law and order issues.

We welcome the drug strategy, initiatives on youth offending and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, but we must find ways to fund those ideas. Our old friend information technology will have a part to play and a lot of money is being put in that direction. We all agree that such spending should not be at the expense of front-line policing. People have a perception of crime and want to see their bobby on the beat, but they also want the most effective means of catching criminals and following up the more deviant members of society. We have to find ways of doing that.

We can argue about the statistics and what they mean, but we were disappointed with the 1.4 per cent. increase in funding in Gloucestershire, which was below the national increase of 2.3 per cent. We responded by putting up our budget and raising our precept. I could argue that Gloucestershire's precept was too low, but we had the fourth-highest increase of all police authorities, and there is a limit to the number of times that we can do that. We may now be more in line with the family of authorities that we all lovingly compare everything to in these days of benchmarking and the rest of it. I hope that the Home Office and the Treasury will look favourably in future at how we can make good our funding needs.

We are looking to the future. I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for our success in achieving funding for the tri-service control room project, which brings the police into line with the ambulance and fire services to make best use of our control rooms. There are ways of taking that initiative further forward. It is an efficient way of using our funding. That may be special pleading, but I hope that the Home Office will have more to say today or in the future about making more effective use of such funds.

We do not pretend that funding is not an issue. I am one of three Gloucestershire Members here today, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) beside me and the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). We have regular meetings with police authority representatives, who tell us their problems. Funding is always at the top of their agenda, so there is no point in pretending that it is not. However, the situation did not start with the election of a Labour Government in May 1997. It is an historic problem. In the debate on 18 March—which my hon. Friend the Member for Salford mentioned—I talked about having separate police authorities, some of which, including mine, are small. That has its benefits, but it also has its downsides, because there are no economies of scale and we were bound to have difficulties with the separation of administrative costs and overheads resulting from splitting police authorities from county councils.

Within reason, we are doing what we can. We need more funds. We need help from the Home Office and the Treasury to get the special projects up and running and to make them as effective as possible. That is as true in rural Britain as in urban Britain, as the recent report of the Women's Institute says. A report by the Back-Bench group of Labour Members published a couple of weeks ago contains an interesting article by Simon Anderson of System 3 about people's perceptions of crime in rural areas and how the globalisation of crime has a special impact on more isolated communities, because they want to see the police presence, but they also want to know that the policing is as effective as possible. That is the essence of the problems with getting the funding formula right. There is a need for more help in rural areas, because the funding formula is not as effective as it could be.

Ms Tess Kingham (Gloucester)

We have heard a lot about the perceptions of the public and the desire for more police on the beat. However, we should also recognise that the Government have done a great deal in looking at other ways of preventing crime and taking the stress off police forces by ensuring that there are always police on the beat to deal with the after-effects of crime and clear-up rates. We have had the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and there is a duty on local authorities to have local crime prevention partnerships. We had a big launch of that in Gloucester, which included all the stakeholders. The initiative was greatly welcomed by every section of the community involved. The police said that they felt that it would have a great impact on the public perception of crime and on preventing crime, which would take the stress off the police.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The hon. Lady must sit down when I get to my feet. That is the first thing that she must learn. The second is that she should not make a speech during an intervention.

Mr. Drew

I acknowledge the work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham) in her constituency, both now as a Member of Parliament and before coming here. She has much to offer, and she made a valid point.

We will not hide from the funding issue. We welcome many of the initiatives and we recognise that there must be a balance between urban and rural areas. All the figures show that the majority of crimes are committed in urban areas. The incidence of reported crime is four times greater in urban areas than in rural areas, but we have seen a relative increase in rural crime. That is due partly to globalisation, because people can move about more quickly. People in rural areas feel very vulnerable.

I hope that all that is recognised in the formula. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have some good things to say about how all that can be rectified and about the most appropriate use of the overall funding package.

11.31 am
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) on securing this debate and on the detailed way in which she gave examples of where police funding is inadequate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who made the case for extra funding for Gloucestershire. I want to mention that. The fact that there are three Members of Parliament from Gloucestershire in the Chamber suggests that things are not well with police funding in that county.

The general funding of public services leaves something to be desired. The Labour party spent 18 years telling the public how the Conservatives had underfunded public services, but, now that we have a Labour Government, we still have similar problems. It is not only the police who are suffering in Gloucestershire. Despite the high-profile figures about health service spending, the health service in Gloucestershire is having to make £5.5 million worth of cuts because of inadequate funding. Tewkesbury borough council has had its grant reduced, causing it to increase the council tax. It has been named and shamed by the Government for reacting to a problem that the Government brought about. The same is true of police funding.

The national pay award, over which each force has no control, was 3.5 per cent. for 1999–2000. Price inflation was 2.2 per cent. Yet Gloucestershire constabulary has been given an increase of only 1.4 per cent. Again, as with the health service, the Government have made a high-profile pay award, with which very few people would disagree, but they have not funded it. That causes a big problem.

Why has Gloucestershire been given such a derisory award? Is it because the Government are diverting money from the shire counties to areas in which their more natural supporters might live? Every shire county apart from two has suffered real-term cuts. The Minister might find that amusing, but it is not amusing to those who live in shire counties. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, Gloucestershire has suffered the fourth largest real-terms cut to its operational budget. I am aware of the problems in the Labour areas to which the Government seem keen to divert money, because I was not born in Tewkesbury, but I am also aware of the problems in rural areas.

Mr. Ian Bruce

My hon. Friend is being over-generous to the Government. In Dorset, we also saw a real-terms cut in the operational budget. Was there not also in Gloucestershire, as there was in Dorset, a massive stealth tax because the Government ensured that local tax payers were paying for all the additional money that came forward? Not a penny extra came from the Home Office or the Government.

Mr. Robertson

I would be called to order if I went too far down that route, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right.

There are difficulties with crime in rural areas. For example, all Gloucestershire Members have received a note from the chief constable about drugs and drug-related crime. That is becoming as much of a problem in rural areas as in urban areas. The sparsity of policing in rural areas encourages that crime.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I do not wish to spoil the hon. Gentleman's argument, but if he believes that money is going to traditional Labour areas, which mine used to be, he is wrong. We are not seeing that and dancing in the streets in my area. The police are reporting just as many problems in areas such as South Yorkshire as they are in rural counties.

Mr. Robertson

Perhaps I have underestimated the funding problem.

The 2 per cent. efficiency saving is being taken into account when grants to constabularies are being calculated. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, the 2 per cent. target includes police pensions and security elements, over which chief constables have no control. A 2 per cent. saving nationally may be achievable, but it is difficult for each force to achieve it locally. For example, the police force in Gloucestershire has to provide security for the royal family. We are delighted that they live there and the force receives a grant to cover the cost, but, given that minimum standards of security must be provided, that should not be taken into account when calculating the 2 per cent. efficiency saving.

Gloucestershire has already made many efficiency savings. It has one of the lowest figures in the country for officers retiring through ill health, sickness levels are below average and it has the smallest number of superintendents. Given all that, why has Gloucestershire received a real-terms cut? Where is the money to come from? As we have already heard, Gloucestershire police have had to increase the precept by 19 per cent. That makes it look as if it is a local problem, when it is not. Also, the chief constable has told all the Gloucestershire Members of Parliament that cuts are having to be made in operational areas. Is that what the Government intended? I do not remember their claiming at the election that there would be cuts in the operational services provided by the police. The Minister must look at what is happening on the ground and not just at statistics which may appear to be okay on the surface, but do not reveal all that happens in the policing of counties.

11.36 am
Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

I am delighted to have a further opportunity to speak on policing, police funding, police numbers and the Government's drive to tackle crime. It is the top issue for the people in my inner-city constituency. I believe firmly that unless we tackle the problem of crime and disorder, all the other social exclusion initiatives on which we are engaged will not be as successful as we would like. If people do not feel safe and secure in their communities, all our other measures to provide jobs and opportunities will not yield the results that we want.

We need some facts in this debate. Over the next three years, the Government will be spending an extra £1.25 billion, which has been gained from the comprehensive spending review. In addition, there is an extra £400 million for crime reduction projects, extra funds for CCTV partnerships between the police, local government and business to try to tackle crime, a major anti-burglary initiative and anti-car crime projects. We have set rigorous targets because we want to see the outcomes.

It is all very well to talk about perceptions, feelings and ideas, but what really matters to the people whom I represent is whether we are preventing, reducing and detecting crime and locking up those who commit crime. We aim to cut vehicle crime by 30 per cent. by the year 2002. That is a tough target, but the Government do not shy away from tough targets because they know how important those issues are for local people. There is no point spending money without tying it to targets. I know that the Conservatives have recently become a tax-and-spend party, but I do not see any point in spending money without the right outcome.

We must not forget the Tory record. I know that it is uncomfortable to be reminded of it, but, under the Tory Government, recorded crime went up from 2.5 million cases in 1979 to 4.5 million cases in 1997. Constituents such as mine bore the brunt of those crimes. A total of 40 per cent. of crime in this country happens in 10 per cent. of areas, and 4 per cent. of people are the victims of 42 per cent. of crime. Those are staggering and scandalous statistics and we must tackle them.

Under the previous Administration, the figures were up for violent crime, burglaries and assault. Crime and disorder was out of control, with young men running wild on estates, making people's lives a misery. The Government's plan to tackle all that is one of the top issues for the whole community.

We are beginning to tackle those problems. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) accepts that intelligence-based policing is the way to tackle crime, detect crime and ensure that convictions are secured, but I ask Conservative Members to use their brains and recognise that, in addition to intelligence, we have to use a little creativity and imagination. The Conservatives appear to be on a tramline of thinking that the only one way to tackle crime is to increase the number of bodies, but I want to increase the number of brains in our crime and disorder system as well.

Let me give some examples of new projects that are being carried out in my city to try to get maximum added value from our investment. Crime reduction partnerships bring together local government, the police, the business sector, the chamber of commerce, voluntary organisations and the local community in an effort to identify the problems of crime and how best to work together to tackle them. Are the police always right for a certain job, or could it be done better by, say, the housing authority? Is it better to bring in the youth service to intervene early in youth crime, rather than always look to the police to provide solutions? Without that partnership, we shall be unable to sustain the regeneration that we all want.

We have also drawn in resources from other areas, through projects such as Operation Victory, which has taken place in Greater Manchester in the past few months. It is the biggest police operation that Greater Manchester has ever known: in Salford, Trafford and Manchester on one day, more than 65 people involved in burglary, handling, theft and the laundering of drug money were arrested. It was a massive operation and, not only did it succeed in taking those people off the streets and locking them up—which was a great relief to my constituents—but it sent a message to the community that they could have confidence that the police were able to tackle those problems and that we are not sitting back and allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by a wave of crime.

We are going out there, tackling crime and using our intelligence. The information used in Operation Victory was gathered over a period of 12 months—the operation was not here today, gone tomorrow. In often difficult and dangerous circumstances, officers gathered evidence and information to use in prosecutions.

Mrs. Lait

Will the hon. Lady tell me what is the difference between Operation Victory and Operation Bumblebee, which was instituted in the mid-1990s and which achieved exactly the same ends? Is not Manchester's action a little late?

Ms Blears

Not at all. Operation Victory was incredibly successful and, although similar programmes have happened before, it was the largest programme yet, being carried out on such a scale that the impact on the community was enormous. It was an excellent project.

Mr. Ian Bruce

The hon. Lady is extremely enthusiastic and we love to hear such enthusiasm. However, my son is a police officer in the north of England and I have to tell her that her speech seems to reflect more closely the views of the Treasury than those of police officers on the beat, who know about their lack of resources and overtime and their resulting inability to get out there and do all that the hon. Lady wants them to do. Will the hon. Lady go back and listen to police officers in her constituency rather than to the Treasury?

Ms Blears

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I listen to police officers in my constituency. Three weeks ago, as the local Member of Parliament, I personally called a crime and disorder forum in my constituency, because I believe that we have a role to play in crime and disorder partnerships. I called together the police, the voluntary sector, business, social services and the youth service to meet me and talk about the new Crime and Disorder Act 1998. I asked them to tell me whether the Act is working and what the difficulties with it are. I asked how best we could institute the anti-social behaviour orders and what sort of protocols were needed to get the evidence to enforce the orders.

I am in daily contact with local police officers. They have inner-city beats, which is hard and challenging work—yes, it is tough out there. However, we have just introduced sector policing, whereby officers are responsible for their own neighbourhood and so are in close, daily touch with their communities. They monitor crime, know where the criminals are, and are able to direct resources into tackling crime in their own neighbourhood. I completely support local police officers, who have a demanding, difficult and challenging job.

We are trying to ensure not only that police officers have the resources that they need, but that they use them in such a way that they get results. If we do not, we are just sending them out on the streets, they do not get results and they see the same criminals day after day, making the same people's lives a misery. The Labour Government's policies are about using intelligence and creativity to give police officers the tools to do the job.

The other example of local action in my city is a massive truancy project. I feel passionately that instead of spending our money on mopping up the results of failure, we should prevent that failure from occurring in the first place. In 1997, 40 per cent. of burglaries, 25 per cent. of robberies, 20 per cent. of thefts and 20 per cent. of criminal damage were committed by children aged 10 to 16. Those children should be in school. We have set a tough and challenging target—that, by 2001, exclusions from school will have been cut by one third—and backed it up with £500 million of extra resources.

We have to consider more than police funding. Look at all the extra resources that are being put into education through education action zones and truancy projects; that will help to prevent crime. Look at the money for the new deal, which gives young people the opportunity to work rather than become involved in crime. The Opposition have a one-track mind and do not see all the different parts of the jigsaw that is being assembled by the Labour Government. Four hundred thousand more people are now in work than were in work under the Tories. The hon. Member for Beckenham recognises the link between unemployment and crime: having more people in work means less crime on the streets.

The Government have set tough targets for efficiency savings, but those savings are being made. The briefing from the Association of Police Authorities—the very people who constantly ask for more funding—states: this year alone, cashable efficiency savings have been identified totalling £107 million…an additional £75 million of expenditure has been redirected into frontline policing activities. That is what my constituents want to hear—resources redirected into reducing crime, detecting crime and convicting criminals. If the Government are able to shift the emphasis from simply having bodies on the street to intelligent policing that actually reduces crime, the people whom I represent who are repeat victims of robberies, burglaries, assaults and theft will be mightily relieved.

I acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Beckenham about pensions. We have to tackle that issue. Nationally, about 13 per cent. of revenue budgets are eaten up by pensions; in Greater Manchester, that figure is 20 per cent. That cannot be allowed to go on. The Government must tackle the issue of pensions.

I believe that the best way to get added value from the resources that we put in is to work in partnership. It is easy to quote statistics and figures, but, in communities such as mine, we are only now beginning to count the true cost of the policies of the previous Government. Conservative Members do not like to hear it, but crime, unemployment, poverty and the breakdown of family life are the true price of Tory government. That is the Tory record, and my city is counting the cost. If the Labour Government are able to tackle crime and make Salford a safer place for people to live, work and bring up their family, we shall have done a great deal. I believe that the Government are up to the task.

11.48 am
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) on securing a debate on police funding, which is one of the Liberal Democrats' main home affairs hobby horses. We need to move the debate on from the well-worked theme of whether there is a direct correlation between funding and police forces' effectiveness. I do not believe that there is such a direct correlation, but to suggest that there is no correlation at all between police funding and police numbers is ludicrous.

It is strange and interesting to hear Labour Members argue that tight public spending settlements lead to efficiency savings and improved services—a view that differs from that which was expressed for many years by their colleagues in local government. In fact, their local government colleagues are still expressing that view, even thought they now have to do it quietly, for fear of embarrassing the Government. We might hear next that the Government decline to abandon local government capping, but merely intend to replace it with a slightly more complex system of capping. Instead of allowing local government to spend what it needs to, perhaps it will be suggested that more efficient social services or education services would be the result of tight and challenging settlements.

I should like to touch on the issue of police numbers, especially the number of special constables, which is of particular concern to the Liberal Democrats. I shall also refer to funding pressures, some of which have already been mentioned and about which the police are extremely concerned. I shall also briefly explore the Government's longer-term strategy, especially in respect of private security. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify comments heard in recent months about the role of private security which appear to be a response to a Government squeeze on funding. It is important that we explore those issues before policies emerge that cause us even greater concern.

The number of full-time police officers has fallen by 1,043 since the general election. We have heard various arguments about whether or not that is a problem. When the Labour party was in opposition, it was ingenious in not giving a specific commitment on numbers, although it gave a clear general impression that it was concerned about the falls in numbers under the previous Government, and launched attack after attack on them. It can now get out of that one by saying that it gave no specific commitment to increase the police numbers so the new falls are acceptable.

The number of special constables has fallen by 3,250 in two years. That is a 16 per cent. fall from 19,500 in March 1997 to 16,500 in March 1999. I know that the Minister has a particular concern about special constables because he said in January: Today's special is a police officer trained to professional standards commanding full confidence of regular colleagues and the public.… We believe this is an excellent use of a valuable resource available to chief officers and support this continued development of the Special Constabulary for the foreseeable future. It gives us concern, and I hope that it concerns him, that we have seen a fall in numbers at a time when the Government seem to advocate increased use of that resource.

The Liberal Democrats would like to see an increase in police numbers. We suggest an increase of 6,000 as a useful way forward. The Government have helpfully costed our proposals in answer to a parliamentary question from one of their Back Benchers. In a written answer on 6 July, they said: The estimated annual cost of 6,000 additional constables would be around £150 million."—[Official Report, 6 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 487.] That would work out at about 5p a week for every citizen, or less than a penny a day. I feel that people would be willing to pay that to have an extra 10 constables in every constituency. People can relate to less than 1p a day and they would be happy to stump up.

We should not talk simply about a conflict between intelligence-led policing and police constables on the ground. There is a possibility of both if people are willing and able to pay. It is valid and legitimate to put it to the public that we need both to combat crime effectively by intelligence-led policing and to combat the fear of crime by providing uniformed officers as a point of contact. The two are not mutually exclusive. I should like us to consider funding both.

I am hesitant to talk about falls in numbers in any area, having heard from the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) how intelligent our criminals are these days. I fear that they may browse through the pages of Hansard, discover where police numbers have fallen, and target their efforts there. I hope that the hon. Gentleman sees no influx of politically astute criminals into Dorset, although that may be one way to describe his campaign team.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the report published by the police service expenditure forecasting group in June. If he does not respond to Opposition concerns, he must respond to the group's comments that the revenue support grant settlement for 1999/2000 was insufficient even to meet inflationary pressures and other spending commitments. In itself, it provided no scope for investment to improve service quality and deliver. That is the view of the professionals. They have made an assessment, and given us their honest opinion that the pressures are significant and are causing police forces problems in delivery of services.

The group has suggested that police forces have a particular problem with long-term projects such as the public safety radio communications project. We need to examine funding for such projects. The PSRCP will cost £23 million next year, but I understand that, as it rolls out in the following three years, it will cost even more. My force in South Yorkshire says that a major alarm bell is ringing on that issue. It simply does not have the money. There are two possible ways forward, both of which would be a problem. The first is to go forward with the full expenditure and cut front-line services. The second is not to take up all the options within the project, in which case the force will end up paying for a more expensive system without deriving all the benefits because it cannot afford the total package. The Government must look into that.

Pension changes are likely to cost more than £64 million next year, but concerns have been expressed that the changes needed in the pension system may end up costing more rather than less in the short term. We need to be assured that the Government are willing to make the changes in a way that does not impact on front-line services, given that the changes need to be made.

It has been estimated that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 will cost about £15 million in the next year. We have welcomed the Act. The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) referred to initiatives such as crime and disorder partnerships. We are fully behind such initiatives, but there was an expectation that the Act would be revenue neutral in its impact on the police. Yet I know from my police force that it is putting a significant amount of senior officer time into it. That is quite proper, but it gives the police a short-term funding pressure estimated at £15 million over the next year. That is £15 million well spent, but I hope that we shall not simply ignore the police authorities when they say that the legislation is costing them more than expected.

We must also take into account specific events such as the millennium. Police forces have flagged up a serious problem in funding police support over that period.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Certainly, the West Mercia constabulary has expressed to me its concerns about funding police support at the millennium. However, the millennium is a foreseeable event—we have known about it for 1,000 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that the policing of unforeseeable events such as the demonstration at Consort Kennels in my constituency by animal rights activists places enormous additional burdens on the police? That demonstration diverted police officers away from their normal activities. The police do not believe that they receive adequate Home Office support for unforeseen events that crop up from time to time.

Mr. Allan

That is a general problem. In my constituency, we had the tragic circumstances of the Hillsborough disaster. Continuing legal battles are costing the police service money. It is receiving conflicting advice. It is a huge political minefield, but, whoever is right or wrong, the police have faced unexpected expenditure. The demonstrations at Shoreham also created a policing requirement. We do not want local police forces to feel that they cannot provide the required level of policing. Some form of ability to respond would be helpful.

We accept that efficiency savings can be made in the police force, but we do not accept the Government's denial that there is any problem. The hon. Member for Salford referred to an increase of £1.24 billion over three years. The Government's comprehensive spending review presentation has been wonderful. They announce, announce again and then announce again. They multiply any figure by three to give a better appearance to their public spending figures. However, when we unravel the Government's ingenious accounting methods, we find that the increase over three years is £675 million, not £1.24 billion.

We should consider funding over the whole Parliament. We were critical of the Government for accepting Tory spending limits. The House of Commons Library has shown that, over the Parliament, there will be no real-terms increase in central funding for the police. In 1998–99, there was a real-terms fall in central funding for the police. That was only the second time that that had happened in 20 years.

Police force reserves are another problem. Police forces often dip into their reserves for specific events, such as the millennium. That increases the overall cost to the force. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy has shown that 11 forces are now running reserves below the recommended level.

The hon. Member for Salford said that police officers faced challenging times. That was also the word used in the Home Office press release on its spending settlement. It said: This is a fair but challenging settlement for the police". Everyone who has watched "Yes, Minister" knows that "challenging" is a Whitehall euphemism for "much lower than needed". One could say that local government had challenging settlements from the Tory Government in the past 18 years, and we know what impact that had on it.

We do not accept that there is a one-to-one relationship between funding and improvements in the police service, but we do not accept that there is no relationship whatever. That point is important and needs to be examined.

I wish to refer to the future direction of the police force. It is not a total coincidence that, at a time of tight police funding and falling numbers, the Government have opened the debate about the future of police patrolling. We are concerned about the Government's intentions. The Home Secretary has openly welcomed and encouraged the debate about the role of private security in patrolling the streets, and he has made public comments to that effect. We do not wish to see the private security industry ignored, as it has a significant role in private spaces, such as shopping centres, where one can define clearly who is responsible for that space and who should properly pay for the security.

There is a difference between that situation and sending people out on patrol, and we are concerned by talk about private security officers patrolling estates. There are two distinct services. Police forces are made up of accountable, professional, trained, disciplined and sworn police officers, who provide a distinct public service. Private security officers—we regret that the Government have not moved further on regulation for them—do not conform to the same disciplines. I hope that the Minister will indicate that there will be further regulation for private security officers.

The Government must ask themselves the crucial question—if private security provides a cheaper service, why is it cheaper? We believe that it is cheaper precisely because the industry does not have to maintain the same standards as the police. There is a lower quality, in that the industry is not an accountable public service with sworn loyalty to the Crown. I hope that the Government will make it clear that it is not their intention to civilianise police patrols. While there are proper arguments for civilianisation of non-front-line policing functions, we believe that they do not apply to police patrolling.

I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the specific concerns about funding issues, identified by the police agencies, and to some wider policy issues. That would shed far more light than simply repeating the mantra of the over-inflated and oft-repeated comprehensive spending review figures.

12.1 pm

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) and to other hon. Members for being unavoidably detained and missing the start of the debate.

I will make a brief speech, concentrating on two themes. First, the West Midlands police force—one of the largest in the country—is not suffering under the misapprehension that it has had a resource cut; in fact, the budget for 1999–2000 shows a total revenue expenditure increase of about 2.3 per cent. It is significant that, in its budget planning, the West Midlands force has been able to put an extra 50 constables out on direct patrol on the streets. It has been able to do that because, as in Manchester—as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) explained—the force is engaged in a radical exercise in sector policing, which is designed to cut out wasteful bureaucracy in the police force.

The West Midlands police force has the highest percentage of constables to other ranks in the country, and the lowest management costs in the country. That theme is extremely important in terms of police funding.

As resources are made available, there are particular aspects of policing and projects to which we would like to see more money directed. Personally, I think that there is more scope for the use of technology in DNA processing, which would be an investment worth making. It is important that we get value for money. The key to that is to reduce management costs and to get a greater ratio of constables to other ranks.

The hon. Member for Beckenham said that numbers matter, and I understand her point. However, it strikes me as significant that the Audit Commission reports have pointed out consistently that, even where the numbers are high, there are forces which, at any one time, can call on only 5 per cent. of their total force to patrol the streets. One must ask what kind of organisational structure pertains where, out of a force of huge numbers, only 5 per cent. are doing active policing. The lessons from Manchester and the West Midlands must be taken on board by other forces if we are to get greater value for money and efficiency.

My second point was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). In this day and age, it is difficult to understand how it can be reasonable—with all the amazing technological advances, and the inevitable costs that they impose—to have 43 police forces spread throughout the country, ranging in number from 950 officers to 29,000. We have 43 authorities that are duplicating the costs of chief constables, personnel departments, research and development departments, payroll departments and purchasing departments. That seems to me to be an extraordinary waste of money.

I would not urge my hon. Friend the Minister to take direct action to compel forces to reduce overall numbers, or to rationalise the size of police forces. However, where improvements can be made by sharing at least some of those activities, there is scope for amazing cost savings, and that would be a significant step forward. I would particularly like to see a regionalised police force—the time has come when we can afford to reduce the number of forces from 43.

I am not concerned now with the question of a democratic deficit because of two significant developments. The first is sector policing. Local superintendents are now accountable to the local population, so there is direct democratic accountability. That is the great strength of sector policing. The second development is that the introduction of police authorities in itself removed directly elected accountability, in the way that it was understood traditionally. Having made that step, we do not need to rehash the old argument.

We must look for the maximum efficiency for the money we put in. That cannot possibly be achieved by 43 authorities that are duplicating every activity endlessly, and are wasting money on bureaucracy that could be spent on patrolling the streets and protecting people from crime.

12.7 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) about police forces. Dorset is a relatively small force, but it is efficient and commands public support. I do not wish to see vast county or regional forces, or a national force. The British system of doing things, with a degree of local accountability, is the best. The county forces, including some of the smaller ones, have a good record. Problems have tended to occur in some of the larger forces, particularly the West Midlands force and the Met. The smaller forces have delivered a good service over the years.

I wish to refer to the overall concern about funding and numbers. I know that "more funding and more numbers" is not the only answer, but it helps in terms of the management of the police. The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) made an intelligent speech—apart from her political points at the end—and made some good points. However, the reality is that, in Dorset, we are struggling with pensions—as are all forces. Over the last 10 years, police pensions as a proportion of budgets have risen from 7 to 13 per cent—an added strain without additional budgets. That is a problem with which all Governments have had to deal.

Apart from pensions, there is the problem of the millennium, which—as the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) pointed out—is a predictable event. Major public services, whether police or hospitals, will have to make extraordinary arrangements to deal with that.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has said that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 will cost £20 million. Much of that Act has been welcomed by my local force, and it may have a positive role to play in policing. However, there are resource implications that have not been addressed fully within budgets.

The fear of crime must be addressed. People are reassured when they see bobbies on the beat. I have a well-developed network of neighbourhood watch groups in Poole, whose members are extremely good at getting on to the police and asking, "Where are the bobbies on the beat? What is going on?" We should pay attention to the public relations aspect, which is particularly important to older constituents.

12.10 pm
Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) on securing the debate and introducing it with such skill. Although there are undoubted differences between hon. Members across the Floor of the House, all of us, regardless of party, are united in acknowledging how much we and our constituents owe to the professionalism, dedication and constant vigilance of our police service.

My hon. Friend sensibly drew attention to the fact that there is no straightforward correlation between police numbers and police effectiveness in tackling crime. However, like my hon. Friend, other hon. Members pointed out that police numbers do matter.

For example, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) noted, it is a matter of concern, especially to people in rural areas, that they may at times have to rely on a response time target from a relatively remote urban centre, rather than having officers on duty, particularly over the weekend or through bank holidays, in the police office or police station in their own village or market town.

The hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears) demonstrated all the passionate, born-again zeal for tight budgets that one would expect from the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. With a cut of 113 police officers in Greater Manchester since the general election, I am not surprised that she steered clear of that subject.

More generally, there is a difference between a considered decision by a chief officer to deploy more of his officers to intelligence gathering, problem-solving policing, surveillance and targeting known villains and repeat victims—for which there would be support across the House—and chief constables and police authorities feeling compelled to reduce the numbers on their establishment below the level that they would regard as satisfactory, simply because of budget constraints resulting from spending decisions imposed by central Government.

The Home Office's figures show that there has been a reduction of more than 1,100 police officers since the general election. The biggest losers include London, where the figure is down by about 680; Sussex, where the figure is down by almost 240; and West Yorkshire, which has lost more than 200 officers. Of the 43 forces in England and Wales, 29 have cut their police numbers since 1998.

The Government's priorities for spending were made clear in their comprehensive spending review. The figures that I have seen suggest a cash increase of 2.7 per cent. in the current year, plus the hoped-for efficiency savings. Over the lifetime of this Parliament, the Government's published spending plans involve real increases of no more than 0.7 per cent.

As four fifths of police expenditure goes on pay, a tight budgetary settlement inevitably means that there will be an impact on manpower. That has been recognised by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities, the Police Federation and the Police Superintendents Association, which have all vigorously drawn attention to the fact that such a tight settlement will make it extremely difficult for them to deal with the priorities that they have been set by the Home Secretary, and to provide the quality of service that they want to give to their local communities.

ACPO has said that an increase of 6.1 per cent. in police spending is needed in order to stand still in the provision of service. If the Government disagree with ACPO's assessment of necessary expenditure, I hope that the Minister, in his response or in writing subsequently, will spell out in detail the methodology that the Government have used to reach a different conclusion from that of ACPO.

As time is short and to enable the Minister of State to respond, I shall concentrate on three topics related to resources, on which I hope the Minister will comment. The first topic is patrols. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) expressed concern about problems affecting the special constabulary. The Minister knows that there has been considerable disquiet among police officers at the idea that, partly as a consequence of constraints on resources, the Government may be considering greater reliance in the future on ancillary citizens patrols or private security patrols of some sort.

Concern about that is not confined to those on the Conservative Benches. A Labour peer, a distinguished former officer, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, warned in another place of substitute, second tier public or private patrols, which certain chief constables are flirting with."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 June 1999; Vol. 602, c. 723.] We on the Conservative Benches have no problem with voluntary initiatives in support of the police. Neighbourhood watch was a great success story of the 1980s, and I am delighted if those on the present Treasury Bench have been converted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) to the advantages of "walking with a purpose". It is always pleasant to see Labour Ministers swallowing the words that they expressed in opposition.

What powers would those patrols have? Would those on patrol hold the office of constable? What would their relationship be to the police? Would there be disciplinary procedures if the powers of those patrollers were abused?

The second topic is pensions. The inspectorate of constabulary concluded that police pensions will cost about 14 per cent. of police expenditure by the financial year 2001-02. It is just over a year since the Home Office published its consultation document on police pensions. Lord Burlison, another distinguished Labour peer, said in another place: We intend to publish soon specific proposals on the future of police pensions."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 21 June 1999; Vol. 602, c. 737.] I hope that the Minister will tell us how soon that document will be published and over what time scale the proposals will be implemented.

My final point concerns the public safety radio communications project—PSRCP—to which other hon. Members alluded. I am sure that the Minister of State is aware of a letter of 17 June from the chairman of the Association of Police Authorities, Dr. Henig, to the Home Secretary, in which she wrote. It is already clear…from the indicative prices that many authorities will face very serious problems if the full cost of this service is to be met from existing funding allocations. She continued: The police service cannot afford to finance PSRCP within the existing level of police grant, without a direct effect on the availability of officers for frontline policing. My own authority in Thames Valley told me that its estimates suggest that the reality of absorbing PSRCP costs within current baselines set by the Government would result in the need to reduce police officer strength by 167.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give answers to some of those questions. He and his colleagues now have the responsibility for making budgetary decisions and setting priorities for a service that all of us in the House support. I hope that he will deal with the concerns that have been expressed not merely by hon. Members in the Opposition parties, but by senior representatives of the police service.

12.19 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

This has been a useful and largely good-humoured debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) on raising an important subject that the whole House will want to be tackled. She was wearing her sensible shoes today; to be fair, she always does. Unfortunately, those sitting behind her—the bovver boys of Dorset and of the New forest—were determined to put her off track. They were true to form; she rightly talked about the importance of sophisticated argument and sensibilities in respect of numbers. The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) knows nothing of sophistication, and sensibilities are hardly the stock-in trade of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). We heard from them a crude party political response to the debate which did them and their party no service whatever.

The truth is that the Government have made available to the police resources far over and above those made available by our predecessors. The figures speak for themselves: estimated total revenue expenditure on the police service in England and Wales for 1999–2000 is £7.426 billion—an increase of £225 million, or 3.1 per cent., over 1998–99. Let us look at police numbers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Beckenham. Police numbers fell between March 1992 and March 1998—by an average of more than 340 officers a year on the basis of a Conservative budget in each and every one of those years—and the Metropolitan police lost 2,060 officers throughout that period. We have stabilised the position and the Met lost only 21 officers in 1998–99. Those are the facts and she must give credit where it is due. Under the Government whom she supported, police numbers fell by more than 340, year on year.

The hon. Member for South Dorset complained about the budget of the Dorset police, but it has increased in the current year by 5 per cent., or £77.4 million, which is above the national average of 3.1 per cent. The people of Dorset would not have had that money spent on policing had his party been returned to government. It was not returned to government and, as a result, expenditure on police in Dorset is greater than under our predecessors.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng


The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) also complained, saying that the presence in the Chamber of three Members representing Gloucestershire seats showed that Gloucestershire's police funding was in crisis. On the contrary; that is a sign of diligence, not of crisis, and it is no accident that the Conservatives were outnumbered. One Conservative and two Labour Members representing Gloucestershire seats were present, and the House can draw its own lessons from that. The contributions of those Labour Members, as well as those of my hon. Friends the Members for Salford (Ms Blears) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe), recognised the real gains being made in policing on the ground resulting from the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Those gains were reflected in the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Ms Kingham).

All my hon. Friends recognised that the 1998 Act has provided a totally different context for policing and the reduction and prevention of crime in our country, and that it has enabled partnerships to be established on the ground. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), who wears his sensible shoes on almost all occasions, was good enough to give due credit to all those good folk in Dorset who are taking advantage of that Act, which the Labour Government passed, to build effective partnerships between the private and public sectors, which is the best way of bearing down on crime and disorder.

We heard the usual Liberal rant from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan): money, money, money, money, more resources, more resources, more resources. Some absurd figures were picked out of the air and it was suggested that if only we would take another penny out of our pockets and give it to the police—it could have been two pennies, but one never knows with the Liberals—all would be well and police officers would suddenly spring up like dragon's teeth. My response is that he really must get real. Why are the Liberals so afraid of recognising the benefit that private-public partnerships can bring?

The hon. Gentleman attempted to raise the spectre of neighbourhood wardens as if the House should be frightened of them. The reverse is true and I am sorry that, in an otherwise unremarkable maiden Front-Bench speech on these matters, the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) saw that same spectre. He suggested that neighbourhood wardens somehow presented a threat to traditional policing values. They do no such thing, because community patrol and neighbourhood warden schemes do not provide substitutes for police officers. On the contrary; their role is to add value to the work of police officers, not to replace them. The benefits of that are being experienced by local communities up and down the country. If the hon. Member for Hallam listened to communities more rather than always having the next edition of Focus in mind, his party would be much better sighted on these issues.

Two serious points relating to police pensions were raised by my hon. Friends and echoed on occasion by Conservative Members. We recognise the difficulties faced by police authorities—they are part of the poisoned legacy left to us after 18 years of neglect of these issues and this part of public policy. We have increased the proportion of revenue funding to be allocated on the basis of pension commitments to 14.5 per cent. in 1999–2000 in recognition of the increased burden of pension costs. I assure the hon. Member for Beckenham that we have been prepared to confront those difficult issues in our review of this matter.

There are no easy answers to the problem of the cost of police pensions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford said. We have not yet made final decisions on the detailed content of the firm proposals that we intend to introduce, but we shall do so shortly. The House will then have an opportunity to consider them, as will the police service and the wider community, in terms of the decisions that we shall have to take.

The public safety radio communications project is important because it relates to new technology, and to improving and enhancing police capacity in that area. Negotiations are taking place between the police information and technology organisation and BT, the putative contractor. They will soon produce outcomes and it will then be possible for us to consider a proper response to the funding challenges.

These are challenging times, but partnership between the police and the public—not simplistic solutions, but recognition of the importance of efficiency and effectiveness—is at the heart of our policies. If we recognise the complexity of modern policing, and if we do not accept simplistic answers to simplistic questions, we shall go forward successfully.