HC Deb 24 March 1999 vol 328 cc328-52

11 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of the Metropolitan police budget for the next financial year. It is right to start this debate with a few words of heartfelt praise for the work and efforts of the Metropolitan police across the capital, especially as the force has faced a tough few years. The cuts imposed by the previous Conservative Government, coupled with controversial internal reforms such as the introduction of tenure, have meant that the morale of the capital's police force has been sorely tested. After the tragedy of Stephen Lawrence's murder and the revelations and publicity surrounding the Macpherson inquiry, that test has been truly tough. However, Metropolitan police officers, day in and day out, have put those pressures and frustrations aside and got on with the job. We should be grateful to them and pay tribute to the excellent work they do for all who live in, work in, and visit this great city.

It is because the Metropolitan police have played such an integral and vital role in London that I wish to raise my concerns about the budget allocation made by the Government for the force next year. It is not enough. That is not only because the budget has gone up by only 2.7 per cent., when the Met themselves say they need 6.1 per cent. just to stand still. It is not only because the number of officers is falling by 75 next year, following a fall of 230 this year. The budget is not enough because, in the daily experience of my constituents, the police are increasingly overstretched and unable to do the job that the community wants them to do.

I am indebted for information about the key elements of the Metropolitan police budget for next year to the Receiver of the Metropolitan police and the Minister. I owe a particular debt to the receiver, because—as a member of the Standing Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Bill—I helped to abolish him, or rather his post. However, the receiver reassures me that he is happy to be abolished. I am not so sure that the Minister will feel that this speech is recompense for her kindness in ensuring that I received yesterday personal copies of the Met's new policing and efficiency plans for next year, but I thank her none the less.

The budget figures are stark. The small cash increases awarded to the Met for next year represent a real cut of 0.8 per cent., following a fall this year of 0.9 per cent. Nor do those cuts follow years of growth. The Audit Commission's report, published in January, reveals that between 1994–95 and 1997–98, the Metropolitan police were one of only three police authorities in the country to see real-term budget cuts. It has not been boom and bust for the Metropolitan police, but bust and bust. There will be no relief even after next year. In years two and three of the comprehensive spending review—the two years after the next financial year—there is little sign of a turnaround.

In practice, the budget situation is even worse that I have described, because of various other factors including, in particular, the mushrooming pension bill of the Met. which is largely paid for out of revenue. Other factors include cost pressures due to increasing demands on and duties for the Metropolitan police, such as those arising from the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the new laws regulating minicabs.

The coming financial year will also see specific one-off cost increases for the Met, including the capital city costs for policing the millennium, the costs arising from the change in the Metropolitan police district and the need to support moves to borough-based policing. I hope that the Minister will address those one-off costs in her reply. Will she reflect on whether the Government should use cash from the contingency reserves to supplement the 1999–2000 Met budget? That would at least recognise that the Met face some extraordinary expenditure items next year—expenditures that the budget allocation we are discussing this morning has not yet specifically covered.

Over the longer term, the increasing pension bill adds 1 per cent. a year to the direct costs of the Metropolitan police. That means that inflation for the police is already 1 per cent. higher than general inflation before anything else, such as pay, is considered. The pension pressure by itself implies that inflation-adjusted cuts to the Met's budget next year, as in the previous years I have already mentioned, present too rosy a view of the underlying position.

Considerable cost pressures arise from the issue of pay, because of the significant problems that the Met have with recruitment. Partly as a result of the abolition of the London housing allowance after the Sheehy report, the numbers coming forward to join the Met have been falling. If the Met are to recruit more officers from ethnic minorities, for example, they will have to ensure that pay remains competitive. My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) will try to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to say more about the Met's recruitment problems, but, for my purposes, they illustrate the financial challenges that the Met face.

The Minister and I may disagree about many issues today, but I hope that we can agree that the Met's budget has been, and continues to be, cut in real terms. Part of the reason for the negative trend in the Met were the changes in the early 1990s to the formula dividing the national police budget between different police forces. That deliberately introduced an anti-London bias. Chief constables from outside London convinced Home Secretaries that London was being featherbedded. As a result, the Met have seen their share of the national police budget shrink from 29 per cent. before the changes in the formula to some 22 per cent. today.

We must now seriously question whether that squeeze on the Met can be sustained for much longer. I understand that the Government are trying to bypass the worst effect of the formula for London by increasing specific grants to compensate for the distinct national and capital city functions that the Met undertake, in protecting royalty and diplomats and policing major events. However, formulae that have served their useful life should be changed, and I urge the Minister to revisit the formula and tackle the anti-London bias.

The comparison that makes London's case well is how London's police officer establishment compares with that in other capital cities of equivalent size and population. While London has some 26,000 officers, New York scrapes by with 40,000—not including Federal Bureau of Investigation and anti-drugs officers—and Paris has a mere 50,000 officers.

London's police precept, compared to other parts of the country, is low and there appears to be a clear intention, which started with the previous Government and looks set to continue, that this precept gap should be closed, and London's council tax payers will be asked to fork out more. It is possible that Londoners will readily accept that, but only if they feel that the extra money they are paying is being used to increase London's police.

The political problem that the Government have is simultaneously cutting London's police budget and demanding higher and higher precepts. How can such a perverse combination be explained to the voters? A member of the Kingston police and community consultative group, Mrs. Alison McWhinnie, put the point well in a letter about the situation in Kingston: Local feeling is very strongly against the police cuts, particularly against the backdrop of what is perceived to be a totally unjustified rise in council taxes. Local people feel that they are having to pay more—to get less in return. I hear that complaint increasingly frequently and I completely agree. It is verging on the undemocratic to ask voters for more money for the police and then, because of the complexities of the police funding arrangements, to proceed to cut the total budget.

The Government have only one major argument against that analysis of the Met's budget, and that is efficiency savings. The Government's view is that all the real-terms budget cuts and all the dire short and long-term budget pressures on the Met can be absorbed through efficiency savings. They have assumed, for example, that next year the Met will save 3.5 per cent. through efficiencies, of which 1.8 per cent. can be cashed in for redirection. Indeed, the central budgetary role of efficiency savings has become a pet theme of the Home Secretary. He seems to be convinced that the police are so riddled with inefficiencies that their performance will be unaffected if budgets are slashed.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

In my constituency, efficiency savings have meant the closure of a sub-police station in Ham. Local volunteers kept going until recently, but sadly that will not continue. The main police station in Richmond town centre, an area which is widely regarded by the Metropolitan police as the drinking centre of London, is manned in the evenings only during the summer. For the rest of the time, the residents have to be content with a telephone on the wall. How does my hon. Friend feel about that as an efficiency saving?

Mr. Davey

I share my hon. Friend's concern about that type of efficiency saving. New Malden has also lost a police station, and my constituents tell me that they do not wish to see efficiency savings such as that. The Home Secretary goes on about efficiency savings. Last Thursday, warming to his theme, he quoted the former Conservative Chief Secretary to the Treasury—the quote was taken in turn from the memoirs of Lord Baker—as saying of the police: We have thrown money at them and we have the highest level of crime in our history.

The Home Secretary quoted that remark with apparent approval, implying that Labour agrees with the Conservatives. Home Office Ministers appear to have done a complete volte face since they were in opposition, positively revelling in the self-evident and all too convenient statement that it is not police numbers or budgets that count, but whether or not crime is going down. It is not inputs that matter, but outputs, they say.

Who could disagree with a search for efficiency savings or with the notion that the police, like all public services, should focus far more on outputs? We do not disagree with that analysis, but we do not share the Government's logic that basic budgets can therefore be cut.

As a member of the Liberal Democrat Treasury team, I studied last year New Zealand's experiment in budget setting by output. Output budgeting drives greater efficiency and enhances accountability because Ministers, Parliament and the public can see more easily how taxes are being spent. The estimates that Parliament receives become thick tomes rather than a few pages. They mean something, and debate can flourish about what is wanted from the police.

We agree with a focus on outputs, but I enter one note of caution. There can be perverse outcomes when budgets for public services are set in terms of outputs, with purchased amounts of services measured and targeted. Towards the end of one financial year, Wellington traffic police had carried out nowhere near the number of breathalyser tests that it was contracted to perform, and to meet its contractual obligation, the police brought Wellington to a standstill, breathalysing almost everyone in a motor vehicle.

Despite such occasional absurdities, output budgeting has largely worked in New Zealand. Directly relevant to this debate is the fact that when a public service analysed what it was trying to achieve, the result was not cuts. Indeed, in many areas, the police realised that more spending was needed.

That is the crucial lesson which I wish to share with Ministers. Focusing fully on outputs, such as reducing fear of crime, might make it clear that more resources are needed. To reduce the fear of crime, we need high-visibility policing, including, at least in some areas, more bobbies on the beat.

I have read the Metropolitan police's policing and efficiency plans for 1999–2000, which were published yesterday, and I saw how Government and the police plans are evolving towards output budgeting. A start has certainly been made. Building on inherited performance targets and indicators, the plans attempt to set out what the Government are trying to achieve with the police and to set out intermediate targets to measure and attain those objectives.

However, detailed consideration of the efficiency plan makes it clear that the Government's approach remains input budgeting. They have set out the outputs that they want, but those outputs are not driving efficiency plans. Instead, those plans are clearly driven by the desperate need to plug the gap in the Met's budget left by Government underfunding rather than by a more strategic analysis of roles, responsibilities and processes.

That is not to say that the efficiency plan is not excellent and might not achieve results similar to those of pure output budgeting: it is, and it might. It is right, for example, to tackle absenteeism and sickness rates, and to reduce them. If that is done, the police officers lost to budget cuts may, at least partially, be offset by the fact that at any one time, fewer officers will be off sick.

It is right to reduce the cost of buildings, to be more efficient in procurement and to use technology to cut costs. However, because the efficiency plan has had to come up with very large figures for savings, over a short period, setting very ambitious targets, one is left with the concern not only that the targets will not be met, but that something is being lost under this approach. What is being lost might be services or features of the Met police that ought to be retained, such as the police stations mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge).

Let me illustrate the problems with examples from my constituency. Kingston division has been hit hard in recent times. We lost more than 40 officers under the Tories in just the two years before the election. Last year, we were threatened by another round of major cuts, and only by hard lobbying of New Scotland Yard did the police community and consultative group and I manage to bring about a rethink.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

How many of the 40 officers were in senior ranks?

Mr. Davey

A few of them were in senior ranks, but many others were ordinary beat officers who have been lost to the Metropolitan police or transferred to inner London. They are certainly not on the streets of Kingston.

Instead of our losing officers, New Malden police station was closed. This year, the Metropolitan police commissioners are back with proposed cuts of 14 officers next year, and eight more from April 2000. All the cuts are the direct result of Government cuts to the Metropolitan police budget.

Kingston is doing its bit towards efficiency drives. In February 1998, Kingston division lost 702 police staff days to sickness. A year later, that had been cut in half to just 328 days, which is excellent. Also excellent is the fact that, with intelligent policing, the burglary rate in Kingston fell last year by 33 per cent.—the fastest fall in any London division. That is brilliant work by the police officers of Kingston division, and I thank and praise them for it.

These efficiency savings and good performances have not prevented the budget shortfall creating other real problems. To start with, New Malden police station remains closed, which is very bad news for an area in which the police presence was appreciated and had a deterrence value. People must go into Kingston to report crime, which may even have distorted crime figures. There is no doubt that closure represents a significant worsening in the police service to New Malden. The sooner the station is reopened, the better.

A second major issue is response times, particularly to areas on the perimeter of the division. The Metropolitan police's policing plan acknowledges how budget cuts are affecting performance: In recognition of the increasing demands for police services, and the resource constraints on the Service, the MPS Charter target for responding to emergency calls within 12 minutes has been adjusted from an 85 per cent target to an 80 per cent target". That is an admission that services are being downgraded.

In Kingston, we have felt the reality of that. Constituents tell me that when there are problems in Chessington, say from a gang of youths on Hook parade, or problems in Worcester park around the station with vandals and graffiti, the police response time has dropped. That is borne out by figures supplied to me by our excellent new chief superintendent, Alan Given, showing that Kingston police arrived at emergency calls within the 12 minutes target more than 90 per cent. of the time last year, but performance has dropped this year to 85 per cent.

A third issue is concern about recent upsurges in youth crime and petty crime in general. Local people see a direct link between this upsurge and the reduction in the number of permanent beat officers in the division. Gerald Lambert, a local neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, told me this week: More and more I hear neighbours and colleagues telling me that they do not bother to report petty crimes because they are so common, and they know the police do not have the resources to deal with them. The reality of the cuts is a loss of officers, and no amount of efficiency savings can hide that. It is all very well for the Government to talk about community policing, zero tolerance and tackling persistent youth offenders, but in Kingston, despite superb and improving efforts by the local police, such talk is treated with derision.

In Kingston, and probably elsewhere in the Metropolitan police area, there is a feeling that when the local police do well, they are punished. There are perverse incentives in the police formula for London. If that formula were fully applied to Kingston, we would lose many, many more police officers. Why? Because crime statistics suggest that we have relatively little crime by comparison with central London, and that there has been a great deal of success in recent years.

Where would such reductions take us? As Roland Kerr, of Kingston Vale neighbourhood watch puts it: I am appalled not just by the reductions but by the continued reductions, year after year. At the "nth" degree we will have no police". We must recognise that places such as Kingston are not over-staffed, whatever the formula says. I urge Ministers to revisit the London police resourcing formula to make sure that success in reducing crime in areas such as Kingston is not punished.

Other places in London are being hit by the cuts. That is why the main focus of this debate is the Londonwide budget. Indeed, my constituents want the whole of London's police to be better resourced. Higson of the Cambridge Road estate residents association in Kingston put it very well when he wrote: We feel at times government concentrates too much on the cost of fighting crime to the extent they ignore the cost of crime to the citizen.

That brings me back to what are probably the core issues for this debate: whether efficiency savings can make up for real-terms budget cuts facing the Metropolitan police, and whether, when crime is reduced, we should cut back on resources. Efficiency savings ought to be a bonus to a local police force, so that it can develop services, not a continual requirement that must be met if wholesale redundancies are to be avoided. Efficiency savings are difficult to make when total budgets are pared back so much. When will anyone judge that the scale of year-on-year efficiency savings has become impossible to meet? Surely Ministers do not think that that model can continue in perpetuity.

Nor should Ministers be complacent when crime is falling. Falls can surely be explained by a number of factors, from under-reporting of crime to the relatively low level of unemployment. I am sure that the falls are also to do with improved policing, but they are not simply a result of that. Even if crime is falling, surely we do not accept the levels with which we are left. Crime is still far too high. If the police are more successful at reducing crime, we should invest in them and their efforts.

I hope that the Minister will at least acknowledge that the Metropolitan police budget is creating difficulties across London. Officers are being lost and communities feel that they are losing their beat officers. I hope that she will take this opportunity not simply to defend the Government's policy but to show that Ministers are ready to think again.

11.21 am
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has raised this topic this morning. It is undoubtedly important, and I am sad that so few hon. Members are in the Chamber to hear what he said. It was worth listening to. I join the hon. Gentleman in saying some nice things about the Met. I believe that they have been traduced recently. They do an excellent job in Bromley. Their record in reducing crime there is good, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, that is not an excuse for reducing the number of police. The fact is that crime is too high and always need to be fought.

The position in Bromley is serious. It is no doubt brought about by the underfunding of the Metropolitan police in London as a whole. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has been a reduction in real terms in the funding for the Met and the consequences are spread around the whole Metropolitan area. It is apparent that the underfunding will be spread over the next three years. That is the problem. The comprehensive spending review locks in funding for three years so there is no likelihood of any change in the present position, which is extremely unsatisfactory.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, the problem is compounded by early retirement, the pensions problem and the exceptional problems of the millennium. We face a bleak future of inadequate funding. What underfunding means in an area such as Bromley is simple. At present, we have seven police stations in the borough, which as the House will know is large in London terms. Two of the stations—Biggin Hill in my constituency and Chislehurst in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—will certainly close this summer. The alarming thing is that it is rumoured that the station in Chislehurst will be turned into a large themed pub. Hon. Members will be able to imagine the concerns of local residents that a police station, which they look to as a source of security and quietness, may become a large themed pub, with all that goes on inside and outside such places. However, that is merely a rumour.

So two police stations out of seven will certainly go. There are also rumours about two other police stations. The one in St. Mary Cray opened only in 1992 under the Conservative Administration. It was campaigned for long and hard by me, by local councillors of all parties and by local residents. We got it built only after a great deal of trouble. It is necessary because the area is a crime hotspot. It has done a good job since it opened. Crime has been reduced in the area. It has had a wholly good effect.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton agrees that the existence of a police station in an area has a beneficial effect and reduces crime in an area. That has been proved year in and year out by the evidence from St. Mary Cray since 1992. Now, it, too, is under threat.

I am told by the local police that the latest position is that they intend to keep the police station at St. Mary Cray. I am very glad to hear it. They also intend for the moment to keep the station in Penge, which is also under threat, but it is likely that, eventually, those two stations will go. Then we will be left with only three police stations.

It can be argued that we should not put too much money into bricks and mortar; that it does not necessarily produce better policing and that it is better to spend the available money on front-line policemen. That argument has been advanced by the Labour party since the general election. However, that is not how the policing works out in reality. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a perverse incentive. If police stations are closed in Bromley, the area will not be able to keep the money in Bromley and put it into extra policemen. The money will disappear into a pot somewhere in London and will be dealt out to some other area. So Bromley suffers a double whammy. It loses two police stations and also loses front-line policemen. That is the problem on the ground.

In the current financial year, the number of policemen went down by 10 in the Bromley division and it will fall by an unknown number—the figures have not yet been worked out—in the next financial year, but the local chief superintendent tells me that it will not be by fewer than 10. So numbers are declining and police stations are closing. Not only that, but, with the new system for rotating police officers, home beat officers are disappearing after two or three years on the beat. The new people know little about what is going on in important crime hotspots. That is a further dilution of the professionalism and effort put into local policing. It is a great tragedy.

The three things that I have mentioned—reduction in the number of police stations, reductions in front-line police numbers and the increased turnround of police officers as a result of the new system—are leading to serious consequences for the further reduction of crime in a typical London borough such as Bromley.

I have more examples of the strains that reductions are causing for the local police. One constituent wrote to me the other day that her partner's tools had been stolen from his car when it was parked outside the house. There were fingerprints and mess everywhere. When she telephoned the local police, they said that they could not send an officer to take fingerprints because no one was available. So, although obvious evidence was there which could help secure a conviction, it was not possible to collect it because the resources were not available.

In my part of London there is a great deal of what another constituent has referred to as youth vandalism and terrorism. Other hon. Members will be familiar with the problem. Areas are troubled by youths who have had too much to drink and have too much time on their hands and the result is bricks through windows, graffiti on walls, cars sprayed and frightening behaviour. That has occurred in a number of areas, and in one particular area recently.

Dr. Tonge

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that youth vandalism is increasing because of a lack of bobbies on the beat? I know that the police are keen to respond when a crime occurs, although he has given us an example of when they did not, but the visibility of police on our streets is surely a big factor in prevention—

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

Order. The hon. Lady should not make a little speech on an intervention.

Mr. Horam

She may be making a speech, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the hon. Lady is right. Although the police at Biggin Hill station responded rapidly to the problem of youth vandalism and were able to clear it up, there was huge concern. There was a meeting of ratepayers in the local church hall to which 200 people turned out because they were so concerned about the general atmosphere, the mindless vandalism and the fear that had been generated in one area. The police were able to cope and sent a force along and the problem has been cleared up temporarily—but it may well recur. A grateful constituent wrote to me: However, we are sorry to learn that the resources of the police are being further reduced and that the Biggin Hill Police Station is most likely to close. This, surely, will only make the local problems worse and it will be only a matter of time before the perpetrators of this vandalism realise that they can resume their reign of terror. Exactly my point. The closure of a police station will lead local youths to realise that they can get away with things once again and another reign of terror will be promulgated in the area.

Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

Surely the hon. Gentleman highlights the anomaly between foot patrols and mobile patrols in cars. In a car, officers can attend two or three incidents in a short space of time, whereas on foot they can attend only one. Visibility is one thing, but we need to make sure that officers in cars have a rota to make sure that down time is spent not sitting in side streets but attending the very hotspots that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

Mr. Horam

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but policing cannot be satisfactory if there are not enough policemen. I am complaining about the reduction in the number of front-line policemen, whether they patrol on foot or in cars. That reduction is the problem; fewer and fewer policemen cannot do more.

A further consequence of the funding cuts is the effect on the confidence of local institutions. In Bromley, as in other areas, there is a police-community consultative group, which has been extremely effective. It is well attended—I go to its meetings whenever my parliamentary duties permit—and is a useful source of information to the police, the local authority and residents; it offers opportunities for people to ventilate their complaints. One of my constituents—a man in whom have great trust—wrote to me about a recent meeting of the consultative group: The chairman allowed me to read out a paper which I had prepared prior to the meeting and members of the public present agreed with my views. His views were: Overall the members of the public are not happy with the way the Group runs. While the police listen to what is said, there is seldom any sort of positive response which we like …It seems that all we can look forward to is a continually diminishing police force even less able to enforce all the laws and discharge matters which they, and no one else, currently have responsibility for. That is the problem. He told me privately that people were attending the consultative group less, because they did not see the point of going to meetings at which the police said sensible things and appeared to be trying to do their best, but simply did not have the resources to deliver what the local community wanted. That is worrying.

As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, the Government's only answer to these problems is efficiency savings. That imposes far too great a burden from one possible course of action, and, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it should be a bonus and an incentive for the police to be more efficient, not a necessary criterion of their keeping even their current resources. Indeed, resources in areas such as Bromley are actually diminishing.

We face a bleak future, if we continue down the path on which the Government are set; it is totally at variance with the promises Labour made on the crime front at the general election.

11.32 am
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I am grateful to be able to speak in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). I apologise to the House because I shall have to leave shortly after my speech. I have to speak in my constituency on the Government's new deal; I think that that is a sufficiently worthwhile reason for making a rapid exit.

My motives in speaking are similar to those of my hon. Friend. We can all see that cuts are taking place. I campaigned against the cuts in police funding that took place under the previous Government. Since 1997, that process has not merely continued but accelerated; in the Twickenham-Richmond area, we have lost 29 officers—more than 10 per cent. of the establishment—and the effects are felt every day. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam): although the police have received some bad publicity recently, they are an extremely popular and respected public service. The message is simple: people want more police officers, not fewer.

There are two essential levels at which we must analyse the economic problems of the police budget. The first relates to overall public financing and the familiar debates, which we do not need to go into, on such matters as Government public allocation and the role of taxation. In that context, the police service has seen a real reduction in expenditure. Although we have touched on those matters, they are not the essence of this debate.

My hon. Friend has already mentioned the one-off requirements, but he did not mention others; for example, if the Lawrence report is implemented in full, considerable additional costs will be required of the police service for training, additional effort in recruiting and compliance procedures. That will require additional budgets of millions of pounds, for which there is currently no provision.

In respect of national funding, I reinforce the points made about pensions. The hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) is in the Chamber; he is the leading authority on public service pensions, especially in the fire service where there is an analogous problem. I appeal to the Minister to consider that matter carefully. The fire service and the police have a uniquely difficult problem with unfunded pensions; pension obligations are now eating up well over 10 per cent. of their budgets, and that percentage increases every year. They have to make a trade-off every year between service provision and pension obligations. In the fire service, that has already led to a virtual breakdown in the service; in three to five years' time, the police service will be in a similar position. That needs to be anticipated and a radical solution found that does not merely start new pension arrangements, but deals with the outstanding stock of pension obligations. The Government have the opportunity and the obligation fundamentally to address that problem.

There is a process by which national funding is allocated between different police authorities. I confess that I do not fully understand it, but I hope that the Minister and others can help me to achieve a better understanding of how the funding formula works. Who sets the weighting between different police forces? As I understand it, the weighting is established by a committee of chief police officers who are not properly representative of the weighting of different forces, in that small police forces have equal weight with the Metropolitan police. That is wholly inappropriate.

I hope that the Government will consider carefully not so much the sums of money as the structure within which the formula is set, because it seems to be inequitable and unsatisfactory. It does not fully capture London's genuinely distinct problems. Some of those problems are acknowledged—for example, the obligation of the Metropolitan police to deal with the problems of terrorism or to cover the royal palaces. Some of those problems are more subtle: the fact that London is a centre for organised crime and is at the centre of the big end of the drug business. I am not sure how much those problems are reflected in the formula, either.

An even more subtle problem, but one that totally disrupts the funding of the Metropolitan police, is the labour market that prevails in London. It is exceptionally difficult to recruit high-quality police officers on current pay and conditions. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has made it clear that he is exceedingly disturbed by the way in which current pay and conditions affect the influx of new police officers. He has to recruit people with extremely low educational qualifications, or even no qualifications at all. He cannot recruit from those people who would be available if pay and conditions were substantially improved; he cannot recruit enough women, or enough people to achieve the correct ethnic mix. That is partly because the formula, set nationally by the committee of chief constables, does not fully recognise the distinctive problems. I hope that that factor will be taken into account.

There are some other relevant issues. The first is priorities; most of us want to talk about our own areas and the way in which they have been affected by the cuts, but broader service sectors in the Metropolitan police have been especially badly hit. The traffic police are severely affected; they have a relatively low priority within Metropolitan police objectives. Many traffic police officers have been redeployed and their posts are no longer filled. The traffic police admit freely that enforcement of serious traffic offences is no longer being carried out with the necessary thoroughness. The dog service is another relatively low-profile police service which has just, rather precariously, been saved from extinction. Such low-priority areas tend to suffer in a tough budgetary environment.

We shall always argue for more money; given the pressures on public services, that is inevitable. But there are ways in which the Government could encourage the Metropolitan police and other police forces to be more imaginative in raising funding. There are two particular methods of doing so. The traffic police could become almost self-financing if they were allowed to retain revenues from funds; hypothecation might be productive in that instance.

A matter more parochial to Twickenham, and one that I have raised with the Home Secretary, is the completely inexplicable practice of large commercial organisations, such as the Rugby Football Union, that organise public events charging the costs of policing the event outside the ground to the public through the Metropolitan police. A major rugby international costs the Metropolitan police about £40,000 in overtime for extra police officers to police traffic and pedestrian movements outside the ground; those costs add up to about £500,000 a year. The number of events organised by such large commercial organisations is growing.

With other events and activities taken into account, each year several million pounds that should properly accrue as revenue to the public sector are being spent on providing services free. The Home Secretary should consider that matter. I realise that there may be technical difficulties: ring-fencing the problem areas; deciding whether to charge in respect of, for example, Chelsea flower show or only big sporting events; and drawing the dividing line between a big event and a small one. However, the issue remains important.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton for raising these issues, and I regret that more hon. Members are not here to participate in the debate.

11.41 am
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I shall be brief, as I am conscious that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) speaking for the Conservatives and the Minister should have the opportunity to respond fully to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey).

I hope that I betray no secrets in saying that my hon. Friends and I tried to organise an opportunity for this debate, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton struck lucky. We wanted to have it before the end of this month and before the beginning of the financial year to which the debate is addressed. Like the Minister, I am conscious that this is the third policing debate that we have had within about a week. We had a sometimes fairly aggressive and heated debate in the Standing Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill, which was attended by the Minister in her capacity both as a Home Office Minister and a London Member of Parliament. Also present were the hon. Members for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton.

In that debate, we considered the whole range of policing issues as they stand and how they will be affected by the new arrangements for London. We are aware that the enactment of that Bill—which we strongly support on the question of police arrangements and in other respects—will mean that, from next year, the London police will have their own police authority, independent of the Home Office, which in years to come will allow the force to speak more boldly to the Home Office as the responsible Department.

Mr. Fitzpatrick

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is appropriate to acknowledge the establishment of the all-party group on police, and the role of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who chairs the group, as a measure of how much more attention police matters now receive in the House?

Mr. Hughes

I certainly do. I am grateful for the acknowledgement of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who, as a member of our London team of Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, has led for us on police and fire services matters since the general election, in establishing that all-party group. It is important that the police should know that parliamentarians support them, want to work with them and are well informed about some of the difficult issues affecting them.

Let me reinforce and add to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton about the need for the Home Office not to be governed in its formula for allocating resources by the European Union-style, non-weighted voting system, whereby each police force has one vote, which results in the Met, because of that voting system and because of the common perception of the Met as a big, well-funded force, not being able to win the votes required to get them the money that they need. Of course the Met is a big force—it polices the biggest area and the largest number of people. Of course that force is numerically large, with 26,000 officers, which is more police officers than almost everywhere else; but no one has ever argued that capital cities do not need that intensity of policing. There should not be a simple formulaic response which states that police forces throughout the country must have the same ratio of police officers to population, and that is the end of the argument.

We must take into consideration the intensity of effort and work that London requires. I hope that the formula and its workings will properly reflect the fact that, like other London services such as fire, education and social services, London's police services have to cater for the demands of a highly complex and diverse community in terms of ethnicity, language, and so on. London police have to deal with people who speak no English and so have to call in interpreters far more often than police in other parts of the country. In the interests of solidarity and understanding, the London police need officers who come from the various communities. The issues are extremely complex, so to say that we must have the same ratio of police officers to people in London as in, say, Herefordshire—an area I know well—simply does not work. Each case must be judged on its merits.

As a capital city, London, by definition, has an intensity of demand for complex policing that requires a particular concentration of resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton argued that the number of personnel should not be cut. London, sadly but inevitably, has more serious crimes than places elsewhere in the country; there are more murders, homicides, manslaughters and killings. As I told the Standing Committee, I have been involved, to a greater extent than I would have liked, in working with the police to tackle such crimes in my area over the past few years. I can testify to the time and effort, the plain hours of work, required to discover who has committed such a crime.

It is no good saying that police must seek greater efficiency savings. Police officers trying to discover who killed Jamie Robe on the streets of Rotherhithe nearly two years ago have spent days tracing all the possible witnesses, talking to them, trying to persuade them to give evidence, dealing with their concern that if they give evidence they will be at risk themselves, protecting witnesses, and negotiating to ensure that people will be moved if they give evidence. Such an effort cannot produce efficiency savings in simple mathematical or formulaic terms, because the job must be done and more than one officer is needed to do it. A murder inquiry requires many officers, or a few officers dedicated to the task for the vast majority of their time.

Many of those officers work overtime and weekends, or come back from their holidays, to get the job done; they are willing to serve far beyond the hours for which they are paid, and far beyond the pay that they receive. Anyone who thinks that the police are slack and that officers often have idle time in which they sit and do nothing should realise that many officers work many hours more than the time for which they are paid and that they are never recompensed for that. There is very little slack in the service as a whole, and in some areas there is none.

In all the time that I have been a Member of Parliament, no Londoner or constituent has ever said to me that he or she wants the precept for the Metropolitan police to be reduced because it is too high. That has never once happened. Londoners say funding should be reduced for some public services, but not for the police. They know that the force may not be entirely brilliant, that not every police officer is wonderful, and that sometimes things go wrong. Londoners know that there may be some rotten eggs in the basket, but we need a decent police service and we are willing to pay for it.

Mr. Greenway

I am extremely interested in the hon. Gentleman's speech; my remarks will be in a similar vein. However, does he agree that people want to be told the truth about why they are having to pay such a large increase in the police precept?

Mr. Hughes

I agree. That is why I told the Standing Committee that reports such as those of the Audit Commission are extremely valuable, because they force comparisons between police services and make police services face up to which of their traditional, often conservative, practices need reform. In Committee, I gave the example of the nonsense that, for years—even until recently—police officers had to do clerical jobs, such as typing charge sheets, that took them hours to complete, which was frustrating for them and a waste of their time, because a competent audio-typist could have done the job in five minutes.

I know of estates off the Old Kent road that have experienced a lot of youth crime, violence and vandalism, where the presence of regular police patrols makes a difference. Initially they may only displace the crime, but, at the end of the day, such policing does make a difference. If gangs of kids hang around and no one stops them or says anything and the residents are afraid, it is sometimes only the police who can effectively intervene. Only they have the authority, the back-up and security in intervening. Residents cannot do it. Sometimes they will not do it because they are intimidated.

Even though the front-line police officers on the beat are extremely important, we must not think that they are the only important people. There is also a need for back-up officers. We need police officers and those in the youth and community services to work with disturbed families and delinquent kids and to go into the schools. These are not front-line services, but if they do, not do the job, much of the other work will not be done effectively, with the result that we shall be fighting the fire rather than preventing the fire in the first place.

We need to ensure that there are efficiencies made to reduce the time that the police spend in court or waiting to go into court. The situation is better than it was, and the Crown Prosecution Service is a great advance, but the police still spend a lot of time hanging around in seeing the process through. The police do not want to do that any more than anyone else.

My hon. Friends and I have been briefed very clearly by senior Met officers about the recruitment crisis, and there is also the wastage of those recruited who fall away. That is a bad use of resources. We need to ensure that the police are valued.

We also need to ensure that we increase the number of specials, which is a linked issue. The specials do not cost nothing, but they are relatively cheap. Many police officers have been nervous about specials, but they can do jobs that complement the regular police service.

Lastly, in the context of the valid points of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, we must ask Ministers, to consider the issue of pensions nationally but particularly as it applies to the Met. My hon. Friends and I know that that cannot be done for the coming financial year which starts in a week's time. If as my hon. Friend says, we are to continue funding 1 per cent. more every year for the pensions of an ever-increasing number of retired officers—we are told that a quarter of the Met's officers are likely to retire in the next five years, which means that there will be a hugely escalating and continuing bill—money will not be available for front-line policing or for any other police services.

In common with all our constituents, we all value the police hugely. We are willing to work with them to ensure that they deliver their service more efficiently. However, there comes a time when the choice between having a service or not depends on whether there is sufficient cash in the budget. Our case is that however efficient we are and however much crime is reduced if we continue cutting the Met's budget in real terms, we shall cross the threshold between a city where policing is able to contain crime and disorder and a city where it is not. Once we have crossed that threshold, we shall be in severe trouble.

11.53 am
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

We always welcome the opportunity to debate police issues. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on his success in securing the debate. I am always particularly pleased to debate Metropolitan police issues because the House will know that, like the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick), I have some experience of active service, albeit a long time ago between 1965 and 1969. It is from that prospective that I join those who have again paid tribute to the excellent job done by the vast majority of serving police officers in London. As we are debating the Metropolitan police budget, we should not forget the policing that the force's officers undertake round and about this Palace.

The subject of the debate is very narrow. As hon. Members have said, the Metropolitan police budget is a cause for concern. However, many other forces face similar problems. Indeed, the situation is worse in some forces than in the Met. That is why the Conservative party used part of a Supply day last Thursday to debate the problems of police funding throughout the country. It was extraordinary, especially given what we have heard during the past 50 minutes or so, that by my count at least 16 Liberal Democrat Members voted with the Government against the Conservative motion, which criticised the very cuts in police manpower and in police services that Liberal Democrat Members have complained about today.

Last Tuesday, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made air excellent speech in the Committee that is considering the Greater London Authority Bill. I pay tribute to the excellent overview that he presented. I read his speech with great interest, particularly in preparation for the Bill's imminent return to the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the problems that London police are facing because of Labour policies. It is astonishing that he voted with the Government against the Conservative motion only two days later.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Conservative motion praised the previous Government's record of investment in the police? Liberal Democrats were unable to support the Conservative party and voted with Labour in the Lobby because we could not endorse the Conservative party's record in government.

Mr. Greenway

That is an extraordinary admission, given that the motion merely referred to 15,000 extra police officers being recruited during the 18 years of Conservative rule, which is a matter of record. Today, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have referred to what they consider was the situation between 1992 and 1997. However, I suggest that they revisit the issue of resources and get some of their facts right. Metropolitan police statistics show that from 1979–80 to 1996–97—the 18 years of the previous Conservative Government—expenditure on policing in London grew every year except in 1980–81 to an accumulated 70 per cent. The hon. Gentleman can check the figures.

The statistics of the personnel department of the Metropolitan police show that in the five years after July 1992 the number of constables in the Metropolitan police increased from 20,999 to 21,541. Of course, the total number of officers fell slightly. If the hon. Gentleman wants to find out why that happened—this is partly why I intervened on him—he should consult the Metropolitan police committee's annual reports. The report for 1995–96 shows that throughout the whole country, in the three years from 1994 to 1996, the number of chief inspectors and those in higher ranks reduced by 255. Liberal Democrat Members should examine carefully where things stood when the Conservative party left office. It may have been a useful device at the general election to criticise the Conservative Government's record—it must be acknowledged that it was employed with some success in London seats—but this debate is about criticising the present Government's record. As my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) has said, over the next three years the situation will become progressively worse as a result of the Government's comprehensive spending review. That will apply not only in London but throughout the country and particularly in rural areas, including those represented by Liberal Democrat Members. If the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends want to succeed in making contrasts, they should be a little more accurate in what they say about the position that the present Government inherited.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and if last week's motion about policing in the country had concerned what has happened since the election, we would have voted with him and his colleagues. However, the figures—which are the Audit Commission's, not mine—demonstrate that, for the last three years of the Conservative Administration, from 1994–95 to 1997–98, the Met experienced a real-terms budget reduction of about 2.5 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman said, the numbers of police were also considerably reduced in the last years of the Tory Administration.

Mr. Greenway

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Audit Commission's reports and my remarks in the debate last Thursday, he will find that the Audit Commission refers to year-on-year real increases in expenditure. [Interruption.] I shall come on to the Met in a moment. In December 1997, when the Home Secretary announced the first Labour police grant settlement, for 1998–99, he said in his press release that the police were the only part of local government or public services to have had real increases in expenditure in each of the previous four years.

Any meaningful and accurate study of the past two or three years will demonstrate that there is a debate, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, about how the national cake should be divided up and what proportion should be allocated to the Met. We must sympathise with Ministers on that point, whichever party is in government. For several years, rural forces campaigned for redistribution of money from the Met to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Association of Police Authorities, which is served by several Liberal Democrat councilors—including its vice chairman, Angela Harris, who is chair of the North Yorkshire police authority—has pressed for, and welcomed, the move towards a needs-based formula, which worked against the Metropolitan police in 1997–98. That is the reason for the budget reduction mentioned by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

It is right that hon. Members should be able to come to the House and argue their constituency corner, and I make no criticism of Liberal Democrat London Members for using this debate to argue for the Metropolitan police. However, the House must take a more considered and comprehensive view of the situation throughout the country. The Association of Police Authorities continues to campaign for further reform and has criticised the level of the Metropolitan police special payment, which increased by 16 per cent. this year. We have to accept that Ministers of whatever party have difficulty in apportioning the overall cake to different parts of the country, whichever public service they are dealing with.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who initiated the debate, and his colleagues might have done better to concentrate on the fact that the overall cake for the country is being reduced, not only London's share. The country is experiencing the problem of reduced resources. For all those reasons, Conservative Members will keep up the pressure for a policy change.

Several hon. Members referred to the problem of police pensions. The age profile of the Metropolitan police shows that 25 per cent. of officers have more than 25 years' service. I elicited that fact from a written answer to which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred in the Standing Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill, and to which he has referred in this debate. When the Bill returns to the Floor of the House, we hope to tackle the issue of the cost of funding pensions in the Metropolitan police. It would be entirely wrong for the Government to shift on to a newly created Metropolitan police authority a serious burden that is entirely within the Home Secretary's purview.

I must, however, point out to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the problem in London is by no means the worst. Staffordshire spends about 18 per cent. of its budget on pension costs, and in my force, North Yorkshire, that figure is 16 per cent.

Other hon. Members referred to the implementation of the Macpherson report, which the House is due to debate on Monday. There are huge resource implications for implementing Sir William Macpherson's recommendations, and the Home Secretary has embraced those in his response to the report which was published and laid before the House yesterday.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred to the closure of police stations and the problems that that creates for policing in their areas. Other hon. Members referred to the problems of recruitment. That growing problem will be made worse if the Government implement their proposed changes to police pension entitlements for new recruits. That is an extensive subject to which we need to return on another day.

The central issue that the House ought to be concerned about in this debate is the effect on council tax payers of the Government's policy on the allocation of police grant to the Metropolitan police this year. The Government grant has increased by 1.7 per cent. The Metropolitan police budget and precept report, published in February, directly refers to the fact that the Home Secretary has informed the Commissioner and the receiver that he considers it reasonable for the service to raise additional funds from the precept to fund an increase in our spending limit of about 2.7 per cent. compared with last year.

I intervened on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey because it would have been better if there had been a little more honesty about the fact that the Met police can spend 2.7 per cent. more, but 1 per cent. of it—almost half of the money—is to come from council tax payers through a 9.5 per cent. increase in their precept. London is already the highest precepting area for police budgets. The figure is about 50 per cent. higher than the national average, and it will now be higher still.

The simple political message is that in the year ahead, Londoners will pay more for less in their police service. They will pay higher precepts for fewer police officers and for police stations that, such as the one in Orpington, are due to close. That is a scandalous state of affairs. It is typical of the Government's approach of increasing taxes by stealth, instead of being open and honest with the people.

There is also concern that about £20 million has come from reserves to provide the 2.7 per cent. increase. One or two hon. Members referred to the likelihood of unforeseen demands on what is already a £2 billion budget. There is a need for adequate reserves, but they are being depleted.

Throughout the debate, hon. Members have spoken about the effect of all that on falling police numbers. There are severe consequences for operational duties. Liberal Democrat Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington referred to the problems of vandalism and rowdy behaviour. All that contributes to the fear of crime and lawlessness within our communities, which, whatever arguments one has about the most effective deployment of officers, can be tackled only by the public seeing the police on their streets.

There is no better illustration of the problems facing the Metropolitan police than the policing of the forthcoming millennium celebrations, which will impose vast demands on the police service, particularly in London, where a large part of the celebrations will be concentrated. Can the Minister tell us where there is provision for all that in the budget? Where is the resource to ensure that, towards the end of the financial year, there will be adequate money to pay for adequate policing?

Overall, we can conclude from the debate that Londoners are getting a good deal from the Metropolitan police service, but not from the Government. In our debate on Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) referred to what the Police Federation said when the budget for policing in the year ahead was first announced. Let me share with the House one or two other comments by the federation, which sum up what we feel about the budget for policing in this country.

The Police Federation's press notice, under the signature of its chairman, Fred Broughton, stated: The public deserve a police service which is properly maintained but, with this budget, they are being short changed. It continued: Maintaining proper levels of police cover is not a luxury, it is a necessity, and the public have a right to be served better".

We agree. Although that was said about the police service across the country, it is especially true of policing in London. Londoners will rightly feel let down. They will gleefully take the opportunity to show how they feel when the Greater London Assembly elections are held in just over a year.

12.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) not just on winning the chance to hold the debate, but on winning it this week, which is an important week for the Metropolitan police.

I am sure that the House will join me in sending our best wishes to the Commissioner who, as hon. Members probably know, is in hospital. We hope that he is recovering well.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton on the measured way in which he opened the debate. The subject sometimes raises emotions, but I hope that we can deal with it in a constructive and sensible way. We share the desire for our police service in London to operate effectively and to meet the needs of Londoners.

Expenditure on the Metropolitan police is substantial public expenditure. It is important to all of us who live and work in London, because the money spent represents a huge investment in the safety of us all. As hon. Members have mentioned, London has unique capital city requirements which place special policing demands on the Met, who also have national functions that make them a special police service.

It is worth reminding ourselves, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) did, of the size of the area for which the Metropolitan police are responsible, and their numbers: 20 per cent. of police officers in the whole of England and Wales are in London. The force is unique in the country, which brings further demands in terms of resources and the nature of policing.

Yesterday, the Commissioner's annual policing plan was published, together with the efficiency plan. This is the first time that an efficiency plan has been produced. Ambitious targets are set out. It is important that the two plans are seen together, because efficiency gains will contribute to more effective policing.

The Government are committed to providing the right level of financial support to ensure that the Metropolitan police can deliver their policing objectives. The House will recall that, in December 1998, the Home Secretary announced a £28.8 million cash boost for the force. That increase means that the funding available to the police for tackling crime and disorder across the capital will rise by 1.7 per cent, from £1.715 billion in 1998–99 to £1.744 billion in 1999–2000. I therefore do not accept that there is a budget shortfall.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Minister is, of course, right about the figures, but a 1.7 per cent. increase is clearly below the rate of inflation. To avoid further debate on matters of fact, can she put it on the record, first, that in the coming year there will be a real-terms cut in the budget of the Met, and secondly, as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) correctly pointed out, that the proportion of the budget coming from the precepted London ratepayers is going up, at the same time as, in real terms, the subsidy from the Government is going down?

Mr. Kate Hoey

I shall go on to deal with the precept, as hon. Members need some accurate information. I do not accept that there is a budget shortfall. As I said, the 1.7 per cent. increase for this year brings the total to £1.744 billion. In addition to that, there is the money from the precept. If we deal with that, hon. Members will see that the overall increase for the Met is larger than for forces in some other parts of the country. There is not a cut, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey suggests. I shall develop the point further, and he can respond later.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton spoke about the problems associated with the millennium. We recognise the special needs of London, and we allocate the special grant each year. As the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said—he is, I think, the only Member present who is from outside London—some people outside London do not like that. The special payment was raised last year, and this year it has been raised again from £151 million to £176 million, specifically to deal with the Met's national and Londonwide functions.

We must retain public confidence in policing. Even with the special payment, the overall spending increase for the Met is in line with the rest of the country. They have not received preferential treatment, but they have not been penalised, taking into account their extra tasks. The special payment is 100 per cent. Home Office grant. It is not charged to London taxpayers or the taxpayers of Kingston.

The council tax payer in London is not paying for the extra services that the Metropolitan police must provide, such as anti-terrorist duties, protection for royalty, VIPs, and the policing of special events such as lobbies of Parliament, pickets and rallies. Within the special grant this year, there should be sufficient funding for the millennium celebrations to be adequately policed.

The new funding that we have given the Met is the first instalment of the extra £1.24 billion pledged to the police over the next three years in the comprehensive spending review. It takes into account a 2 per cent. year-on-year efficiency improvement target, which we set as part of the CSR settlement.

As has been said, funding for the Met is not just a matter of central Government funding. The receiver for the Metropolitan police has estimated that net revenue expenditure, which includes the precepted amount for 1999–2000, will be £1.88 billion. That produces an increase of about 3 per cent. in the Met's budget over 1998–99, and brings it broadly in line with the national increase. The budget balances the Commissioner's need for increased resources with the interests of council tax payers in containing their contributions.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton mentioned the precept. It is important to consider what London council tax payers will pay for policing next year. For band D properties, the cost will be £77.44 for the year, which is an increase of less than 60p a month over 1998–99, and the total annual charge is less than the cost of a television licence or a road fund licence for a car.

I appreciate that Opposition Members in particular usually point out figures to make things look disadvantageous to the Government, but the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey should ask people whether they are prepared to pay that extra 60p a month. He said that people never tell him that they want local police stations to close and police numbers to be reduced. I am absolutely certain that, when those figures were spelt out, they would say that they would pay the extra money.

Mr. Hughes

As I said in my speech, I am sure that the people of London are happy to make a contribution; I have never heard a protest.

The Minister has helpfully given the figures. First, if she can, will she tell us how the 1.7 per cent. increase from the Government to the Met for the coming year compares with the percentages for other police services? Is the Met at the bottom of the league table, in the middle or at the top? Secondly, what percentage increase in the precept can Londoners expect and how does it compare with increases for other police service precept payers around England?

Mr. Kate Hoey

I shall try to give those figures before the end of my speech, but I should add that, in the Metropolitan police district, the proportion of policing spending raised from estimated council tax in 1998–99 is 12.5 per cent. That is the ninth lowest proportion across all police authorities in England and well below the English average of 14.5 per cent. We are not being unreasonable by asking London council tax payers to contribute a little more for policing next year.

To look at the Metropolitan police in a different context, according to the latest figures from the Audit Commission, expenditure on policing per head of population in the Met area is £218.30, which is double the national average of slightly more than £114. Clearly a great deal of money is going into the police per head of population. We have to be sure that it is being spent in the best possible way on reducing crime and the fear of crime, which is what the police are for and which makes people feel much safer.

I want to answer a couple of points before I go on to discuss efficiency. The hon. Members for Orpington (Mr. Horam) and for Kingston and Surbiton raised the potential closure of police stations, which arouses great emotions, especially in the immediate vicinity of such stations. Police stations are a visible form of reassurance for the public, but last week's Audit Commission report on the police estate found that changes in crime patterns and the increasing use of problem-solving and intelligence-led policing methods, rather than random policing, mean that some police stations are unsuitable for policing in the 1990s. We must accept that. Police forces must review their estate, because, ultimately, better estate management can serve the public better.

When police stations are being threatened with closure, it is essential that the reasons why such a step might be taken are discussed fully, not only with community policing consultative groups, but with the local people. The police must be able to justify a closure, not only for operational reasons, but for reasons that will reassure people that taking such a step will help to make policing better. I know that it is extremely difficult to make those arguments because I have had such cases in my constituency, but Members of Parliament sometimes have to face the fact that difficult steps must be taken in their own constituency and that it is right, although not easy, to argue for them to be taken.

The hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned the national police funding formula. The hon. Member for Twickenham, who has had to leave—to support the new deal in his constituency, I hope—said that he was not sure whether he understood the formula. It would be very dishonest of me to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that I understand it completely, but one or two people in the Home Office truly understand this difficult and complicated way of working out how much money police forces throughout the country receive.

We inherited the formula from the previous Government. We have refined it, as did the previous Government, but it is not perfect. We have commissioned some independent research to examine whether there are additional costs in policing inner-city urban areas that are not reflected in the formula. All hon. Members who represent inner-city areas well know the particular difficulties with policing those areas. We hope that the research will come up with conclusions that we can use constructively. Although there will never be a formula that satisfies everyone, we have to try continually to make improvements.

Recruitment and retention are clearly important because the Met are an ageing force—we must attract new, younger people. In 1998, for the first time in five years, the Met advertised nationally for recruits and Hendon is being used to capacity. I urge all London Members of Parliament to visit Hendon to see the enormous changes that are taking place in police training; a lot of what came out of the Macpherson report is being worked on at Hendon and such a visit would be useful.

We are trying to do more about retention. We want to retain officers, because it is a pity to train them up only for them to leave the force early. Retention has a lot to do with morale and the police feeling that they have the support of the community, and we have to work on that quickly.

Pensions are a problem which faced the previous Government and face this Government. No Government would want to face up to the huge long-term costs of the pensions shortfall, but a consultation document was published last March and firm proposals will be introduced soon. We are considering the costs and benefits of introducing a funded pensions scheme for new entrants, but that will not be a panacea. We need to get this right and look ahead, although Governments always tend to look at the present rather than the future. This year, however, we recognised the increased burden of police pensions and increased to 14.5 per cent. the proportion of police revenue funding allocated on the basis of police pension commitments.

Setting budgets is not about consistently looking for increases in cash; it is also about achieving more and better with available resources, and 1999–2000 is the first year in which we have required forces to produce efficiency plans. I recommend that all hon. Members read the Met's efficiency plan. Hon. Members may have pressed for more cash to be injected into policing, but we have taken positive action to make sure that everything we invest in our police delivers more efficient and effective police services.

Perhaps it is time to treat our police as a public service. In common with any other public service, policing is about service delivery. We are asking no more of the police than the previous Administration sought from other public services, such as the health service. We intend to introduce best value and to ensure that everything that the Met do—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I must tell the Minister that time is up.