§ The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham)
I beg to move,That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2002–03 (HC 533), which was laid before this House on 28th January, be approved.In the White Paper on policing the 21st century, published before Christmas, the Government set out a radical programme for police reform with the aim of reducing crime and the fear of crime. The public want criminals caught and convicted. They want to see crime tackled, the fear of crime reduced, and antisocial behaviour and disorder tackled effectively. The White Paper sets out the ways in which we shall raise the performance of the police service across England and Wales and bring all forces up to the standard of the best.
The funding settlement that I am announcing today will help to underpin the process of police reform. Resources have been targeted to support the modernisation process. More officers will be provided through investment in the crime fighting fund, and the police service will benefit from more effective support from science, technology and information technology through Airwave and the national strategy for police information systems. We are also providing investment to enable police officers to make better use of their time and skills, through the DNA expansion programme, and there is an increased provision for capital investment in works, vehicles, information technology and other equipment.
Police resources will be maximised to put more officers on the beat, and to make better use of them when they are there. That will be achieved by better deployment of the increasing number of police officers, tackling unnecessary bureaucracy, and enhancing the capacity of support staff.
Central to that vision is an increase in the number of police officers. Our target is to achieve 130,000 officers by the end of the coming financial year. In the past two years, the Government have provided for an additional 6,000 recruits, and a further 3,000 will be financed in the coming year—all outside the general funding for police authorities covered by the police grant that we are discussing today. The crime fighting fund alone is equivalent to an additional £221 million on the provision for policing.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
Is there specific provision in the figures that the right hon. Gentleman is announcing for the additional security required following the events on 11 September? Undoubtedly, there must be police officers at our ports of entry and our airports. In Avon and Somerset, 10 police officers who could be patrolling our rural areas are permanently lost to provide cover at Bristol airport. How can we recover that funding and make up for the depleted number of officers who police our rural areas?
§ Mr. Denham
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As in any year, the costs of policing terrorist activities and incidents are in part included in the police grant, but the issue of increased costs is under consideration and consultation is taking place with the Association of Chief Police Officers and others. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have already made 293 specific provision of some £30 million over and above the police grant in the current financial year. I am not yet in a position to announce the funding for the coming year.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I want to give the Minister a word of thanks. His Department has reimbursed North Yorkshire police for the extra cost of policing Menwith Hill and Fylingdales in my constituency, and we are grateful for that. The bad news is that North Yorkshire police have still not been reimbursed the £1 million cost of policing the Selby rail crash. This is now an urgent matter, and unless some reassurance can be given before the police committee meeting next Monday, the precept in North Yorkshire, which is already going up by a third, will increase by even more in order to meet that cost.
§ Mr. Denham
I shall write to the hon. Gentleman as swiftly as I can on the specific issue of Selby. There may be cause to discuss that problem later in the debate. Police authorities are routinely expected to absorb an element of unprecedented and unexpected costs. It has never been the case that every single penny of unexpected costs is reimbursed from the centre. I shall endeavour to get back to the hon. Gentleman regarding the specific matter of Selby.
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)
My right hon. Friend talks of unexpected costs. He will recall the disturbances in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley last year, which caused serious problems for the police budgets in West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Lancashire. Is he able to give a positive indication that those additional costs will be met?
§ Mr. Denham
If I may make a little progress, I shall come to that matter in a moment.
As a result of the Government's efforts, we have turned the tide on police numbers. Increases in police funding have brought about a rise in the number of police officers to 127,200, and we shall continue to build on that success this year. We expect to have record numbers of police officers—more than 128,300—in the spring, and 14 forces already have record numbers. After we have reached those record numbers, we shall need another 1,700 officers to reach next year's spring target of 130,000. Financing 3,000 recruits through the crime fighting fund next year should deliver that target.
The number of civilian support staff now stands at 56,644, which is an increase of 2,788 in the year to September 2001. Those extra support officers mean that police can spend more of their time on visible operational policing.
Police authorities and forces have pressed for funds for additional officers for many years. We have provided those funds. Indeed, had we included them in the general 294 allocation of grant this year and next, the increase in resources going directly to forces would have been not 2.9 per cent. but about 3.9 per cent.
§ Mr. Denham
I will take one more intervention, but I hope that Members will then let me make a little progress. I suspect that many of the issues that they want to raise will be covered later in my speech.
§ Mrs. Campbell
My constituents are grateful for the 40 extra officers that the Cambridgeshire police have had since September 2000. The police authority, however, maintains that unless the police rate goes up by 10 per cent., Cambridgeshire stands to lose up to 100 officers. Does my right hon. Friend regard that as scaremongering?
§ Mr. Denham
As my hon. Friend will know, the Cambridgeshire force is one of those that have already achieved record numbers. The determination of the exact precept is a matter for the police authority, but the settlement commits substantial resources to the police in England and Wales as a whole.
The grant allocation does not include the large amount in the crime fighting fund that will pay not just the costs of recruits in the coming year, but the salaries of those recruited in the previous two years of the fund. When that money has not been taken fully into account in the presentation of figures, the true resources available to police authorities are inevitably understated.
The police funding settlement for the coming year builds on last year's record level. Overall provision for policing will increase by 6.1 per cent., to £9,010 million. That is an increase of over 16 per cent. on the provision for 2001. By 2003–04, police funds will have risen to £9.3 billion. That is an increase of more than 20 per cent., or 12 per cent. in real terms, on provision in 2000–01. Most will be paid to police authorities as grant, either for general purposes or to support specific initiatives.
The police grant report deals with Home Office support for revenue expenditure, but revenue spending is not the whole story. I am pleased to say that we have been able to increase the provision of capital grant and supplementary credit approvals from £157.43 million in 2001–02 to £209.43 million in 2002–03. That is a substantial increase—33 per cent. Most forces will receive more capital grant and credit approval for general capital expenditure than they did this year, and none will receive less. With part of the £209 million, we will establish a £20 million grant fund to improve the police estate. The Audit Commission has remarked on the condition of police properties. The increased provision, and the opportunities for forces to bid for more from the capital fund, will lead to modernised working conditions and improved services for members of the public who go to the police.
Let me now deal with general funding. For 2002–03, the total amount of police authority general expenditure to which the Government will contribute police or rate support grant will be £7,831 million. That is an increase of £217 million on this year's provision, adjusted for the move of the National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence Service to central funding. The increase 295 amounts to 2.9 per cent., but Members should bear in mind the fact that when provision for specific initiatives and capital is included, it becomes 5 per cent.
I have taken account of a number of factors in the grant settlement. On 1 April 2000, the boundaries of the Metropolitan police district were brought into line with those of the 32 London boroughs. That meant that Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey took over responsibility for the policing of areas that were formerly in the Metropolitan police district.
We have taken account of transitional costs incurred in the last three years. We had intended to discontinue the additional payments for 2002–03, but I have recognised that transitional costs will continue to be incurred, and have extended the payments for one further year. We will therefore be making special payments of grant in 2002–03 totalling £1.1 million in recognition of the additional costs resulting from the boundary changes. Hertfordshire will receive an additional £0.3 million and Surrey an additional £0.8 million.
We accept that the police funding formula is not sufficiently sophisticated or flexible to respond to the distinct characteristics and responsibilities of the Metropolitan police in carrying out capital city and national functions. For that reason, each year the Greater London Authority receives a special payment of grant on behalf of the Metropolitan police authority in addition to that provided through the funding formula.
In recognition of the Metropolitan police service's specific needs, the Metropolitan police special grant will be increased from £191 million this year to £197 million for 2002–03. That is paid as 100 per cent. Home Office grant and is not charged to London council tax payers.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
The Minister has taken account of the special national role of the police force in the capital. He will be aware that this year Manchester is hosting the Commonwealth games, an important national sporting occasion. Will he undertake not just to provide the £3 million that has already been promised, but to meet the whole of the £7.5 million cost of policing the games? If he does not, he must understand that there will be an unacceptable cost for council tax payers in Greater Manchester, or unacceptable cuts to policing in Greater Manchester.
§ Mr. Denham
For the record, nothing has been promised yet under this heading. The hon. Gentleman may be anticipating things that I will come to a little later, or Ceefax for the north-west, but I will deal with the Commonwealth games in due course, although the Government have already pledged some £30 million towards the cost of the Commonwealth games.
I turn to specific initiatives for revenue or operational spending, for which provision is made on top of the general allocation of funds to police authorities. The main programmes address particular pressing needs identified by police authorities. They also reflect our concern to develop particular elements of the service as part of the modernisation agenda.
I have already referred to the crime fighting fund, of which the coming financial year will be the third year. A total of £167 million is provided for the costs of continuing to employ the first 6,000 recruits, and £54 million is provided for next year's recruits. That 296 investment is critical to the delivery of 130,000 officers by spring next year. Police authorities and forces have delivered admirably against the first two years' targets for the programme.
Both revenue and capital provision is made for those forces scheduled to take Airwave, the new radio communication system, during the coming year. Capital set-up provision of £76 million is made available for the equipment and facilities that will be required locally for forces scheduled to take the service. We will also provide up to £65 million of revenue support for forces to invest in initial preparation costs and for locally determined menu services. The core service charge payable to the contractor, and likely to cost around £50 million next year, will be met centrally.
Airwave is an important building block in police modernisation. It will replace a variety of existing radio systems with a common system based on modern digital technology. Greater Manchester police was the second force to receive Airwave, in part in recognition of the need to have a modern communication system in place in time for the Commonwealth games. That spending is part of our undertaking to provide up to £500 million over three years to enable forces to adopt the system in the certainty that the main burden of the cost will be covered.
In 2000–01, the Government provided £15 million through a new rural policing fund to meet the particular problems encountered in rural or sparsely populated areas. The fund was expanded to £30 million this year and I propose to continue payment next year. The fund is targeted at rural policing issues. The 31 forces that benefit are encouraged to develop ideas and initiatives that benefit rural communities.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that will be part of the negotiation that he will enter into with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions? Whatever new funding mechanism is arrived at, the problem of policing in rural areas must be recognised.
§ Mr. Denham
I shall say something in a moment about the funding formula, the way in which it may be re-examined and our approach to that. We will want to ensure that we look at the range of criticisms of the current funding formula.
We are particularly aware of the impact that the higher cost of living in London and the south-east can have on recruitment and retention in the area, which is why we have provided additional funding to help forces recruit and retain officers. In the coming year, £33 million will be provided for a 75 per cent. share of the cost of the London pay lead—the payment to Metropolitan and City police force officers who were recruited on, or after, 24 September 1994, and who do not receive housing allowances. Arrangements are also in place to provide an allowance to qualifying officers in other forces in the south-east. In Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Thames Valley, the allowance is an extra £2,000 a year; in Bedfordshire, Hampshire and Sussex, it is an additional 297 £1,000. Provision is also made for funding free rail travel up to 70 miles from London for officers in the Metropolitan and City forces.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
Is my right hon. Friend the Minister aware that many of us have lobbied long and hard for the regional cost of living allowance for forces adjoining London? House prices in my Reading constituency, and in many others in the south-east, actually exceed those in many parts of London. Does he not recognise that it is potentially damaging to pay police officers in the Metropolitan police area an additional £6,000—my goodness, they have earned it—while paying only £2,000 to officers in other high-cost housing areas? Will the Minister undertake to review that system, which simply is not working? At the moment, the additional money is not much more than a sticking plaster.
§ Mr. Denham
I understand my hon. Friend's point, but the allowances, which are a relatively recent development, were properly agreed with the police negotiating body through the negotiating structure—the forum in which those issues should properly be addressed. As a Hampshire MP, I, too, am aware that such issues exist in the south-east, but we must ensure that we take a proper and well-informed approach to them, rather than suggesting that we can make a difference simply by pulling a figure out of a hat. I shall now give way to my county colleague.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
As the right hon. Gentleman has implied, he is not unfamiliar with the problems in Hampshire. The resources that he announced at the beginning of the debate are very welcome, but unless the issue of allowances is addressed, it will be impossible to spend those resources because of the retention and recruitment problem, to which reference has just been made. Will he use such influence as he has to review as soon as possible the £1,000 allowance, which is a real barrier to getting the quality police force that we all want to see?
§ Mr. Denham
I want to ensure that we identify the problems precisely and tackle them effectively. It is notable that some of the police forces surrounding London appear to have much greater problems with recruitment and retention than others, even though the apparent underlying conditions are very similar. For example, Surrey, which is as geographically close to London as one can get, has very high house prices, but the Surrey force has not suffered the same recruitment difficulty as the Hampshire and Hertfordshire forces. I am anxious to work with forces in the region to identify the precise nature of the recruitment and retention problems, and such work is already in train. I want to ensure that any action taken addresses real, rather than assumed, problems, which is the approach that I tend to take. I acknowledge the concerns that have been expressed, but I think that the approach that I have identified is the right and proper way for the Government to proceed.
298 I want to touch briefly on centrally provided services, which also form part of the police funding arrangements for the coming year and account for about £170 million. Some £23 million is provided for training costs arising from the crime fighting fund, which will cover initial training for additional recruits at national police training centres. Some £61 million has been allocated to the DNA database expansion programme, and £27 million has been included for the national strategy for police information systems—NSPIS.
The planned case and custody applications will provide a number of benefits to the police. Case preparation will reduce paperwork through the creation and use of electronic files. The custody application will provide police custody officers with online guidance on all the procedures to be followed in the booking-in of suspects, and their subsequent progress through the system. The systems will be linked to each other. The accurate details that they provide will eliminate the need for police officers to fill out several different forms, and will be capable of transmission to other criminal justice systems.
All that is part of our effort to prevent the time-wasting duplication of work, and to free officers to concentrate on a job that there is no doubt requires their full professional skills.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
What the Minister has said will come as a great relief to the many who have wondered when the Government would be able to introduce a computerised custody system. However, we discussed the matter only a month or so ago when the Home Secretary introduced his White Paper. At that time, the Minister was evasive about when the system would be introduced. He appears today to be saying that that introduction is imminent. Will he give us a deadline by which he expects to introduce a computerised custody system that will reduce the ridiculous bureaucracy in police stations?
§ Mr. Denham
The provision that I have announced this afternoon reflects our confidence that we will make significant progress this coming year. A full system will not be in place in every part of the country this year, and it will be some time before we can roll it out across the police service as a whole. However, we recognise the need to make progress on this area of IT development. There is no doubt that poor police IT is one of the factors that limits the most effective use of police officers' time. As we identified in last autumn's study entitled "Diary of a Police Officer", the lack of appropriate IT ties police officers to the police station as they cope with unnecessary bureaucratic duties. We are determined to make progress, and the provision announced this afternoon demonstrates our desire to do so.
The National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service form a vital part of a modernised police service in tackling serious and organised crime. Both agencies have an important role to play, internationally and nationally, and the valuable work that they do in turn benefits police authorities at local level.
Provision for the NCS and NCIS was increased in 2001–02, using funds from levies on police authorities. From the coming year, both bodies will be funded directly by the Home Office. That will add to the transparency of their funding, which will no longer be a hidden deduction from the general policing provision.
299 Because of the central importance of the NCS and NCIS in the battle against serious crime, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has decided to increase provision for the NCS and NCIS from £165 million to £202 million in 2002–03. I believe that that investment in tackling serious crime will be broadly and widely welcomed.
§ Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)
Hon. Members from all parties in Cheshire recently met the chief constable of the local force, and heard the disturbing news that our police authority grant is to increase by only 1.9 per cent. in real terms. The reason, as the Minister has made clear, is that the amount being deducted from the grant to meet the allocations for the NCS and NCIS is more than the local police force was spending. As a result of the mechanism that the Minister described, the force has lost out. Will he look specifically at the Cheshire case, as it concerns both Labour and Conservative MPs in the county?
§ Mr. Denham
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman understands the question any more than I will understand the answer that I am about to give. However, I assure him that, having been alerted to the concerns in Cheshire by hon. Members of all parties, I am satisfied that we are right to say that the county has received an increase of 2.5 per cent. The adjustments in baselines to reflect the change in the way that the NCS and NCIS are funded do not undermine that argument, and are perfectly consistent with the ways in which adjustments to baseline budgets are always implemented by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to set out the case. However, I took the opportunity to check the matter earlier, and I believe that the funding increase has been appropriately represented by the Government.
A consultation exercise on the funding settlement was held in the normal way. I received 38 representations from 27 police authority areas, as well as from hon. Members, the Association of Chief Police Officers, chief constables and police authorities.
There is always concern about the size of any settlement and how the cake is cut, but, of the overall increase of 6.1 per cent., 5 per cent. will go to police authorities for the CFF, as capital, and for other specific initiatives, as well as the grant. It builds on the 10 per cent. increase in policing provision in 2001–02.
Concerns were raised about the method of adjustment to the 2001–02 baseline, on which I have touched. However, as a result of wider changes to the baseline calculations from services not affecting my Department, but in a more equitable way, we have agreed to fund an additional £5 million to that which was proposed in the autumn to make sure that, on a like for like basis, year on year, every police authority will receive a grant increase of at least 2.3 per cent. In total, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been able to identify some £11 million on top of the original policing settlement to make sure that we achieve an equitable increase for all police authorities.
§ Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)
The Minister will be aware that for a variety of reasons, pension costs as a proportion of the total police budget are increasing. 300 Indeed, it is predicted that such costs will increase dramatically in the next few years. To what extent has he taken that into account and will he take it into account when considering the funding of the police authorities in the months and years ahead?
§ Mr. Denham
In the short term, the cost of pensions has been taken into account in the settlement in the normal way. However, we said in the police reform White Paper that we are looking at more significant changes to the police pension system, and we are currently working on that. There are a number of issues to address, such as having a modern benefits structure. We said in the White Paper that we would like to find a way of more satisfactorily insulating police authorities from the predictable costs of normal retirement within the pension scheme. Work on that will be continuing. For the coming year, provision has been made in the usual way and is reflected in these calculations.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
Following on from that point, what advice will the Minister give police authorities about their budgeting this year? If they are anticipating a pension time bomb in several years, it might be prudent to put extra money on one side now, but if there is to be a change in a few years, there would be no possibility of putting more police on the beat. What advice will he give the authorities on coping with the future, given the uncertainty of the change ahead?
§ Mr. Denham
The police authorities should probably approach the corning year as they have approached previous years. If the Home Office felt that there was a need for central guidance which varied from that advice, we would send it out. However, I have said to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) that we recognise that pensions are an issue for police authorities' budgets, and we want to deal with that as we look at the future of police pension provision. I would not like to trigger any dramatic change today in the way in which police authorities approach their budgeting for this issue for next year.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
Will the Minister acknowledge that the contributions made by police into their pension funds are almost double what many other public sector workers, such as local government officers, pay?
§ Mr. Denham
I accept that the contribution rate is quite high. Equally, full pension rights can be achieved after 30 years of service, which is not the case in other schemes. Indeed, an issue that arises when considering the future of pension schemes is how to achieve a system that is seen by all sides to be equitable in terms of the cost to the employer and to the police officer, and which continues to reflect the rather special nature of a police career and the duties and responsibilities of police officers. That is one reason why we have the sort of pension scheme that is in place at the moment. These are not easy matters to keep in balance, and we will need to do that as we develop our ideas on the future of the pension scheme.
§ David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
The costs that the Minister has been talking about, and others, 301 put particular pressure on some police forces so that the settlement that the formula has delivered is not enough to cover their costs. Some police forces, such as mine in Humberside and South Yorkshire—of particular interest to the Home Secretary—are badly hit by the formula and have been for some years. In my case, it has meant doubling the council tax precept to cover the costs. Earlier the right hon. Gentleman mentioned changes to the formula. Can he give us any guidance and hope that the formula will be changed in such a way as to help the likes of the Humberside and South Yorkshire forces in future? They are good police forces doing a good job, but they are dying the death of a thousand cuts.
§ Mr. Denham
I do not accept that either of those forces is dying the death of a thousand cuts. The increases in resources during the past two years were unheard of under the right hon. Gentleman's party, so let us not have loose talk of that sort because it is damaging.
Let us talk about the formula. All that I want to do—extremely tentatively—is to set out the principles. A part of the pension costs arises from predictable costs that occur when people retire from the police service in the usual way. The police service as a whole and individual police forces have no control over that, but the costs can vary unpredictably if, 30 years previously, there was a cohort with an especially substantial intake. When that group leaves the service there can be a disproportionate impact on pension costs and the budget for that year, and that fact will not be reflected 100 per cent. in the damping mechanisms that are currently in the system. My aim—although I am not sure whether I can achieve it—is to have a system that better protects forces from those costs.
Another cost built into pension schemes reflects to a large extent the success or otherwise of police services in effectively managing health and medical retirement issues. We all acknowledge that some forces have dealt with those much more effectively than others. I am not convinced that those costs are central and that we should pick them up, or that it would serve the good management of the police service to say that whatever the rate of medical retirement the cost to the pension scheme would be picked up centrally. The honest answer is that we shall have to get that right, so that we send the correct signals through the system. We must try to protect police authorities against costs over which they cannot possibly have control but which can affect their budget. However, we do not want to send a signal that poor management will be subsidised by the central police settlement. That will be my approach.
I have already referred to our actions in finding additional resources from outside the planned settlement to ensure that each police authority receives a grant increase during 2001–02 on a like-for-like basis of at least 2.3 per cent. The mechanism is part of a system of floors and ceilings that have applied to the local government grant settlement. Although the mechanism has generally been welcomed, some authorities would have preferred a higher floor, while others were concerned that those above the floor were paying for those below it. We have damped that effect with the additional resources found by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The introduction of the floors and ceilings system has been useful this year.
302 I want to make a couple of points about the special grant. As my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) pointed out, I have received requests for special grant to support several police authorities who suffered during the disturbances last summer. I am pleased to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has agreed to meet more than half the extra policing costs that were incurred and to give grant as follows: £2.22 million to West Yorkshire; £1.44 million to Greater Manchester; £0.82 million to Lancashire; and £0.56 million to Staffordshire.
§ Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)
The announcement that my right hon. Friend has made about West Yorkshire will be most welcome and will go some way towards mitigating the £3.4 million that the service spent on policing the Bradford disturbances. Will he bear in mind, however, that the authority, like many others, also faces claims for not damage? In the case of West Yorkshire, the amount is £7.5 million. Will he monitor the situation with a view to being equally generous when the final picture and its impact on the service and on police funding becomes clearer?
§ Mr. Denham
The amount that I announced is an improvement on the normal special grant criteria. Those criteria would have allowed for only a small payment for policing costs—only about £300,000 for West Yorkshire. I hope that the move to meet almost 64 per cent. of the extra policing costs will be seen as significant.
I can say nothing specific this afternoon about possible claims under the Riot (Damages) Act 1886. We shall have to wait and see what the position is. We are aware that the Lancashire police authority, for example, is determined to resist claims under the Act. I cannot speak for the authority, but it sees no reason why taxpayers' money should be spent on refunding insurance companies. I believe that that is some way in the distance, but I hope that the additional resources will be welcomed by the forces that receive them.
We have also considered the position of Greater Manchester police, which, as I have just announced, will receive £1.44 million to help to meet the costs of the disturbances. The Secretary of State and I have agreed that a grant of £3 million will be paid to Greater Manchester police as a contribution to the policing costs of the Commonwealth games in a few months' time. Until two or three months ago, Greater Manchester police was telling us that the costs would be £4.8 million, so £3 million is a fairly substantial amount. There was a £3 million hike in that cost, of which we were informed in November.
There cannot be a blank cheque for underwriting whatever costs Greater Manchester police says that it will incur. My officials are still in discussions with the police authority to ascertain whether further costs are justified, but comments of the sort that I heard the chairman of the police authority make today, suggesting that people would be put at risk, show a great deal less confidence in Greater Manchester police than I have.
§ Mr. Brady
The Minister has said that the estimate of the cost of policing has increased since the original estimate was given, but will he give an undertaking that if he is persuaded that the new estimate is accurate and 303 the costs will be £7.5 million, the whole cost will be funded by the Home Office, not dumped on the council tax payers of Greater Manchester?
§ Mr. Denham
I have said what I have said. Until November we were told that the costs would be £4.8 million, and then someone said that they would be another £3 million. We are in discussions about the nature of those costs and we shall have to see what happens. Clearly, that would be additional substantial Government funding, in addition to the funding that has already been made available to the Commonwealth games. Of course we all want the games to be a success and a safe success, but equally there cannot be a blank cheque.
§ Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
My right hon. Friend has been generous in recognising the difficulties faced by many forces, but will he also recognise that when particular areas decide to bid for large events such as the Commonwealth games, it is done on the basis that local people, local business interests and others believe that there will be a financial gain as a result of attracting these events? Should not they also contribute something towards the policing costs?
§ Mr. Denham
My hon. Friend is right in the sense that we all hope that Manchester, and the north-west region, will benefit substantially from a successful Commonwealth games. I am quite prepared—I believe that this is the Government's attitude—to approach the issue in partnership, which is why there has been significant Government funding and why I was pleased to make the announcement that I made this afternoon. But I am aware of the reality that may have prompted my hon. Friend's question—that money that I find for the Commonwealth games in Manchester is money that cannot be made available to the police service in any of the areas represented by any of the other hon. Members in the Chamber. We must get the right balance between the needs that arise from specific events and the needs that exist in every area of the country, and I hope that we are doing so. That is why we do not like blank cheques, and why we consider issues very seriously and carefully, on the merits of each case.
For the coming year, we continue to set store by stability in the grant system, to help police authorities to plan ahead. As with this year, we have not proposed any changes to the method of police grant distribution for 2002–03. There will be no substantive changes to the operation of the police funding formula for next year, although of course data have been updated as usual. For 2002–03, the average increase in grant-supported expenditure for police authorities will be 2.9 per cent.
The formula has many strengths. It is generally acceptable to much of the policing community; it also has well recognised limitations. It is largely based on the way in which police forces allocated officers to services in the early 1990s, so we are working to update the formula in line with the policing needs of the next five years. We have a working group with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the National Assembly for Wales, the Local Government Association, the Greater London Authority and the Metropolitan police. That group is considering a range of options to update the funding formula, 304 particularly with regard to the police activity data that underlies it. The group is also considering how best to deal with the additional costs that may arise from policing especially sparsely or densely populated areas—an issue raised earlier in the debate.
During the consultation on the grant this year a variety of issues have been raised about the formula. Those who raise such issues always assume any change will be to their benefit, even though no change will ever produce only winners. However, my right hon. Friend and I have concluded that this is the time to undertake a serious and wide-ranging review of the formula. As part of that review, we shall want to examine all the issues raised in the consultation and seek to ensure that the grant formula properly supports the police service of England and Wales on its key role of tackling criminality, reducing crime and tackling the fear of crime.
Where possible, I should like changes to the funding formula to be introduced, after consultation, in time for the provisional police funding settlement for 2003–04, but the ability to do that will depend on making good progress in the months ahead.
§ Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)
I have listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend has said about the annual settlement. I have a briefing from the Cleveland police authority in which I am told:The overall effect of the police settlement is that local taxation will have to increase significantly above general inflation to provide essential additional funding for the police service.Is my right hon. Friend aware of that? The chairman of the police authority has said that the police precept will have to increase by at least 50p a week—about £26 on a band D council tax bill. That is a serious consequence of the settlement.
§ Mr. Denham
I shall write to my hon. Friend about the position in his authority, but I have set out pretty clearly that this is a good settlement, taking into account not just the grant settlement, but the additional funding, through the crime fighting fund, to recruit additional police officers—plus the 30 per cent. increase on average in capital funding, together with the additional resources from which many forces benefit. Of course, it is for police authorities to set their precepts, and we expect them to do so in a reasonable and prudent manner, but those who are trying to represent the settlement as a particularly poor one are really not reflecting the contribution of the different sources of funds that I have set out this afternoon.
§ Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)
I was pleased to hear that the Minister has consulted the National Assembly for Wales on the future of the formula. The settlement has had a mixed reception in Wales, but there is a growing feeling that police functions and police funding should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. Has his Department had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Wales or the First Minister, with a view to making progress?
§ Mr. Denham
I think that I can be absolutely confident in saying that no such discussions have taken place in the six or seven months that I have been in this job, and I am not aware that any took place previously, but we enjoy 305 in the devolution settlement an extremely good working relationship with National Assembly for Wales at official and political level. The Assembly shares absolutely our commitment to tackling criminality, reducing crime and tackling the fear of crime. I have made a number of visits to Wales, as I have to the regions of England. We have a good, effective working relationship, and I hope that we can build on it in the years to come. We are determined to reduce crime and to lessen the fear of crime. The investment that I have announced will help the police to play their key part in tackling crime and disorder.
§ Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)
My right hon. Friend talks of reducing crime, and I am sure that he is conscious of the fact that police numbers are rising and crime is falling in Nottinghamshire, but on any statistical comparison with like authorities, he will find that the Nottinghamshire police appear to be under-resourced. Will he give a commitment that, in the new formula in 2003–04, he will look very carefully at the position in Nottinghamshire? I accept what he says: all cannot be winners; there will be losers, too.
§ Mr. Denham
I have visited Nottinghamshire, and I am aware that the view in the city of Nottingham in particular is that the Nottinghamshire force faces the typical crime patterns of a major city under what is seen as a shire county funding formula. I cannot tell my hon. Friend what the outcome of the formula review will be, but I hope—this may be fatal optimism—that we will be able to approach the matter in such a way that he and other Nottinghamshire Members will be able to see that their concerns have been considered and addressed. That is an ambitious aim for any review—it will not leave everybody satisfied—but I hope that I can at least say that I listened to people when I made such visits. After many years of such issues not being considered, we are now prepared to consider them afresh.
I have taken considerably longer than I had hoped, but I hope that I have given way to all hon. Members who wished to intervene and that I have been able to respond to many of their points.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. I remind all hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a time limit of 12 minutes on all Back Benchers' speeches. Given the fact that a number of hon. Members have risen, they may wish to make their contributions even shorter.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I shall do my best to enable as many hon. Members as possible, from all parties, to contribute to the debate.
I recognise the courteous way in which the Minister introduced the debate. He has given way, as has been a tradition in this debate over many years, to every hon. Member who wished to put the case for their police force. He and I are the only two hon. Members who have been prevented from doing that, but I assure him that I shall do my best to do so when I come to the appropriate moment in my speech.
306 I welcome the Minister's announcement, towards the end of his remarks, about extra resources for those forces who had to deal with riots, unrest and disturbances in some parts of the country last year. It is right that such extraordinary costs should be recognised, as should the extra costs—I will not enter into the dispute about how much they will be—that Manchester will incur because of the Commonwealth games. I would refer to Cambridgeshire inasmuch as, last year, the then Home Secretary recognised the extra costs faced by the police force in policing the Huntingdon Life Sciences protests, which are a permanent thorn in the side of Cambridgeshire constabulary. I hope that the Minister will look favourably on that issue again.
The debate takes place against a dismal background of acute demoralisation in the police force. Before I consider the settlement, it is right to examine that background. Since the Home Secretary took on his new role just eight months ago, he has used every opportunity to criticise and undermine the police force. He has criticised their sickness rates, wastage rates and clear-up rates, and has generally presented the police force as a bunch of lazy, ill layabouts.
Even before that, however, the police were faced with ever-increasing bureaucracy and paperwork. As the Minister rightly said, that was manifested in the diary of a police officer, which showed how little time the police spend doing what most people regard as the most important part of policing—being out there visibly carrying out their duties.
As I said in my intervention, I welcome the fact that the Minister believes that the computerised custody system will come on stream in the course of next year. I am sorry that he was not able to provide a more definitive date as to when it will be extended to the whole country, as it will not be fully beneficial until then. However, the study entitled "Diary of a Police Officer" showed that it takes about three and a half hours on average to process each arrest. Therefore, any savings that can be made through the use of a computerised system would release a considerable amount of officer time.
§ Mr. Paice
The hon. Gentleman is on to a good point, but he misses the crucial issue, which is the vast amount of paperwork that needs to be done before we address the problem of who does it. I welcome the fact that the Police Negotiating Board has tentatively found a way to encourage police officers who have done their 30 years to stay on in the force and use their experience to deal with custody cases or some other policing activity. That is a considerable step forward, but other things have caused the police to wonder why they bother.
The courts continue to release on bail people who the police know full well will reoffend. Chief police officers have expressed their concern to me about that. The Government introduced the early release scheme, which allowed 200 people who had attacked police officers out of prison early. In addition, the Home Secretary's proposals to make a dramatic change to pay and terms of 307 employment were pushed through the Police Negotiating Board just before Christmas, under the heads of agreement. The rank and file are due to vote next week. The expectation in all levels of the police force is that it will be a no vote and that the concessions on overtime which the Home Secretary made on Monday will be insufficient to alter the result. As one police officer said to me yesterday, they have been knocked about. They feel bruised and battered and just when they needed encouragement, they are kicked again. Anyone with experience of managing people knows that it is necessary to bolster the morale of staff and the work force before setting about asking them to face change.
Let me be clear on this: we wholly support the need for change and increased flexibility in the police force. That is necessary, but the Government's bully-boy tactics are not conducive to making the police force adapt and face up to that change constructively, which is what we need if we are to achieve the necessary results.
The Minister referred to figures. Only two years ago, the Prime Minister said:every single promise that we made—on getting waiting lists down, getting class sizes down and increasing police numbers—will be met by the next general election, as we said they would be."—[Official Report, 16 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 948.]We know that that did not happen and the promise was broken. It appears that the Government have at last got police numbers back to the level that they inherited, but instead of showing remorse or apologising for four wasted years, the Minister wants credit for getting us back to square one.
§ Mr. Denham
The direction of the tide was set by the previous Government who began cutting police numbers in 1993 and they continued to fall steadily. Not only did crime double, but the country was left in such a bad economic state that we had to sort out the public finances, which were in such a mess in 1997, and introduce economic stability to provide the platform for the increase in police numbers. The hon. Gentleman's Government set the tide in that direction when they allowed crime to double.
§ Mr. Paice
The Minister is absolutely wrong. According to the Government's figures—it is staggering how often they belie what the Government say—between March 1996 and March 1997, the last year of the Conservative Government, the number of police officers rose by 250 in a single year. I do not know where he gets the idea that we set the tide in that direction because the numbers rose to 127,158. I remind the House that by 31 March 2000 the number of police officers had dropped from 127,158 to 124,170—a drop of almost 3,000 in the first three years of a Labour Government.
§ Norman Baker (Lewes)
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the drop in police numbers when the 308 Labour Government came to power. Is not the problem the fact that the Government followed Tory spending plans?
§ Mr. Paice
That is a typical Liberal intervention. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the Government say that they have followed Conservative plans when it suits them to do so, as an excuse for a lack of effective and efficient economic management. However, when they want to boast about extra expenditure, of course that has nothing to do with the previous Government's spending plans; they claim the credit for themselves.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
We have got into a debate, since I sought to intervene, about where this all started. In Slough, it started with the abolition of the police housing allowance by the Conservative Government, which has meant that police officers in Slough, who are only four miles away from the boundary of the Met area, are paid £6,000 less than Met officers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in power, his party was wrong to abolish the police housing allowance?
§ Mr. Paice
No, I certainly do not agree that we were wrong to abolish it per se—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Lady specifically referred to Slough. I do not pretend to have a detailed working knowledge of the police force in Slough; that is her responsibility, and I do not have that knowledge. If it proves that the policy was not right for circumstances in Slough, she may have a point; I cannot answer that. However, overall, it was not wrong to abolish the allowance in the wider context of London and the Metropolitan police. The £6,000 pay lead to which the Minister referred was a more sensible way of dealing with the problem, coupled with the introduction of the transport allowance. My own county, however, is suffering from the introduction of that allowance; in counties from which it is possible to commute to London, we now find that many police officers are using the free travel to join the Met. It is swings and roundabouts; some police forces may have lost out a little, but overall there has been a significant gain for policing in this country.
The final background issue which I wish to mention is crime. In the five years before Labour came to power, crime fell year on year by a total of 17 per cent, which was the first time in decades that the rise had begun to be reversed. Crime then started to rise; the Home Office, as is traditional in the circumstances, tried to change the figures so that it was difficult to make comparisons. However, after those changes, recorded crime began to rise again, by 3.8 per cent in the following year, only thankfully to fall back by 2.5 per cent. the year after.
§ Mr. McCabe
Does the hon. Gentleman reject the British crime survey finding that overall crime has fallen by 22 per cent. since Labour came to power in 1997?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind hon. Members that we are discussing the size and distribution of the police grant as contained in the report.
§ Mr. Paice
I appreciate that very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, may I respond briefly to the 309 intervention? The simple fact is that much crime, particularly violent crime, has risen dramatically in the past few years. In some London boroughs, robbery has increased by more than 100 per cent. in the past 12 months. For the Minister to chide us that crime doubled over 18 years sits ill with the fact that under Labour, violent crime and robbery in some London boroughs has doubled in 12 months.
Having set the background to the debate, I shall look directly at funding and the police grant. The Minister paraded a great many figures to demonstrate huge generosity. He spoke about 6.1 per cent. and 5 per cent., and at one stage he got to a 16 per cent. planned increase. For the vast majority of police authorities, however, the reality is much less. For 19 authorities, it is the floor figure of 2.3 per cent. The introduction of floors and ceilings is a commendable way of ironing out some of the unfairnesses that arise from the formula, but it seems odd to choose figures which mean that almost half—19 of the police authorities—are at the floor level.
The total standard spending increase of 2.8 per cent. means an increase of £209 million, but according to the Association of Police Authorities, authorities will have to increase their revenue expenditure by £371 million just to stand still. That is because of inflation, last year's pay settlement of 3.5 per cent., and pensions rising by a projected 8 per cent. this year.
We see another turn of the screw on the council tax payer. Already under the Government there has been a marked shift towards funding the police through the council tax payer. That is nowhere more marked than in the Metropolitan police area, where there has been a 141 per cent. increase in the council tax precept per head. In Humberside, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said, it has doubled. In Staffordshire, too, it has doubled. In my county, Cambridgeshire, it has gone up by 64 per cent. In the county of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), it has gone up by some 60 per cent. The county with the lowest increase is Durham, where the figure is just 23 per cent. I can only conjecture as to why that might be.
We also know that for the coming year, as a result of the grant settlement announced by the Minister this afternoon, police authorities are considering the need for further huge increases. In the case of Cambridgeshire, despite what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said earlier—she was wrong—the county police authority is consulting on a 20 per cent. increase, just to have a stand-still budget, with no extra for national schemes or local pressures. Despite what the Minister said, Cambridgeshire remains the second lowest in terms of officers per head of population and in terms of average spending per head.
In Cumbria, the chief constable said that the settlement means that there will be some hard decisions ahead. In discussions with other authorities this morning and earlier this week, we found that Hampshire, the Minister's own authority, requires 5.2 per cent. just to stand still, but is expecting an increase of 14.5 per cent. In Lancashire, the projected figure is 8.7 per cent., in Cheshire, 14 per cent., and in Bedfordshire, 12 per cent. A survey conducted by the Police Authorities Treasurers Society showed that a significant number of forces were considering an increase 310 in the precept of 20 to 30 per cent., and others were trying to deal with the shortfall by cutting back on certain elements.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)
In the case of the West Mercia police authority, a further massive real-terms increase of 19.9 per cent. in council tax is predicted. That comes on top of the 7.9 per cent. increase that the county council must levy to meet the Government's spending ambitions—a huge increase for those who can least afford to pay it.
§ Mr. Paice
Were all counties represented in the Chamber and were I to give way, I am sure that many other hon. Members would tell similar stories to that of my hon. Friend. Every county that we have telephoned has given similar stories. We just chose a few at random.
Will the Minister tell the House what rise he realistically expects in the average council tax precept by police authorities, just for a stand-still budget? It is important to know that because, as the chief constable of Cumbria said with reference to the crime fighting fund,the rules which govern the appointment of these officers require that they are in addition to normal recruitment—which in the light of the overall position cannot be guaranteed.As the Minister reminded us, the Government are committed to having 130,000 officers by the end of the approaching financial year, yet some authorities clearly doubt whether they can afford to maintain the normal recruitment pattern. That would mean losing access to the crime fighting fund. The Minister makes great play of the target for a record number of officers, and we shall be pleased if he achieves it. However, the cup may be dashed from his lips because authorities cannot afford the extra officers without further substantial increases in council tax. In the first four years, council tax payers have had to pay considerably more for, in the main, the same number of police officers.
The Minister mentioned pensions in his concluding remarks. I appreciate the difficulty of wrestling with that issue, but I hope that he realises the urgency of reaching a conclusion on the problem. It is a running sore for police authorities and a huge and increasing drain on their resources.
The Minister referred to the distribution formula, and I was interested to hear that he and the Home Secretary believe that the time is right to undertake "a serious and wide-ranging review of the formula". That would be good news if the Government had not embarked on a similar review three years ago in 1999. We have received no results from it. Year after year, the Minister and his predecessors have promised to change the distribution formula; we continue to await results.
Top-sliced funding is also important. This year, the Government have increased the amount of money that they top slice from the police budget by some 51 per cent. for special initiatives. I admit that each initiative is a worthy item of expenditure; £120 million extra has been taken for them, another £203 million for the National Criminal Intelligence Service and £167 million for centrally provided services. The figures for last year are not directly comparable because they are shrouded in Home Office mystique, but there appeared to be an increase of 143 per cent. in the amount of money that was top sliced and retained by the centre. That is a worrying trend.
311 The Home Secretary reportedly said that he wanted an initiative a day, but a clear picture is emerging: he does not trust chief constables or police authorities with the initiatives. The trend towards central control of funds, coupled with the swingeing extra powers that he proposes to take in the Police Reform Bill, are the signs of someone who trusts nobody. His stance appears to be, "We can have as many initiatives as we like as long as they are all mine." That is the opposite of local control, to which the Government pay lip service.
It is worth recalling the words of the White Paper, which was published before Christmas. On page 137, it states:The importance of police authorities in the governance of the police service is recognised and their role in providing local oversight of police forces is key … This new role creates a much higher set of expectations of police authorities".Yet their power to act is increasingly curtailed.
We can divine two clear messages from the settlement and those that preceded it. First, there is a huge shift in the cost of policing, which is borne increasingly by council tax payers, presumably in the hope that they will not notice, that they will blame the police authority or, even better, the local authority that levies the tax. Secondly, we can forget about local control or initiatives. Policing will be exactly what the Home Secretary determines. His instincts about the need to improve policing are right, but his methods are wrong.
Increasingly centralised control of our police by funding or authority may seem attractive to a Home Secretary who wants change fast, but it is dangerous to put so much power in the hands of one person, and he should think again.
§ Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I welcome the announcement, particularly from the point of view of the west midlands. I spoke earlier today to some of the officers, including the chief constable, of West Midlands police. They were certainly happy with their settlement, which is the average 2.8 per cent. That is worth £368 million in revenue for the west midlands, and I welcome that. It is clear that the police need more officers, more resources and more support. It strikes me, however, that they are not immune to reform. Like any other public service, they must be prepared to respond to changing needs and to changing public demands.
Despite the tale of woe and denial from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), it is a fact that the latest British crime survey records that overall crime figures have fallen by 22 per cent. since Labour came to power in 1997. That is a mark of the strength of the Government's policing strategies and funding strategies, and we should celebrate that. In particular, we should celebrate the initiatives that have reduced house burglary and vehicle crime.
We should also be prepared, however, to criticise when we come across the statistics that suggest that 24 per cent. of all recorded crime goes undetected, and only 9 per cent. ends in a conviction. That suggests that we should try to do more. A key to that is obviously to have more officers, and the additional funding that has been announced, plus the crime fighting fund, will achieve that aim. In the west 312 midlands, the number of officers rose from 7,113 in March 1997 to 7,432 by September last year, so there can be no doubt that there has been an increase.
That increase could well have been greater if we were not suffering from problems of transfers and retention in the west midlands. The current proposals on police pay will give the average officer about an extra £1,000 a year, which is welcome in terms of helping with retention. If regional allowances are having a positive impact in some parts of the home counties, it should be worth considering whether a similar arrangement could be made for a big force such as the West Midlands police, which is suffering from a seepage of trained officers to surrounding forces.
I also welcome the proposals to reduce red tape. I was astounded by a case that I encountered recently in Birmingham, in which the chief constable delegated powers for the making of an antisocial behaviour order to the superintendent of the operational command unit. He omitted, however, to delegate the powers to consult with the relevant associated agencies, and the magistrates court refused to make the order, even though it was based on a well-founded application. That is the ultimate absurdity in red tape, and I hope that efforts will be made to sweep that kind of nonsense away at the earliest opportunity.
I want to comment on two topical issues confronting the police, which relate to how we spend resources. First, I want to explore the possibility of making greater use of people such as community support officers, and the proposals for the accreditation of other agencies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in some areas such provisions could complement police work. It must, however, be made clear that community support officers will play a supporting role that will not be regarded as second-hand, or cheaper, policing, and that their use will not be used to disguise police numbers.
Many hon. Members will have seen the letter in The Times today from the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. He made the telling point that a community support officer may deal with certain activities but does not have the capacity to deal with more serious incidents. If one of our—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I have already reminded hon. Members that we are discussing the police grant report.
§ Mr. McCabe
I am extremely grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point that I was trying to make is that we must use the funding appropriately, and that we do not want to create two-tier policing. Although it is important to get the maximum benefit from the resources available to us, if a uniformed element appears as a quasi police force without appropriate powers, we risk undermining public confidence rather than reinforcing it.
Will the Minister assure us that any moves towards accreditation or community support officers will be fully discussed and negotiated, and that they will not be imposed on police forces throughout the country?
I should like to touch on a point raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire about the tendency to centralise. He was talking specifically about the top-slicing of certain resources for central elements. This Government have established a new approach to policing under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, based on pooling resources and energies within local 313 partnerships with a view to tackling crime together. It would be a mistake to go about top-slicing budgets and creating too many centralised targets and initiatives that distract from the work in a local area.
Some of the Home Office targets—those on house burglaries and vehicle crime spring to mind—have been immensely successful. However, it would be a dreadful mistake if we were to attempt to micromanage the police from Queen Anne's Gate. It would fly in the face of the recommendations in the Audit Commission report, which argued strongly for devolving resources—operational power and, more importantly, budgets and finance—to basic command units.
Will the Minister ensure that we do not undermine the work that has been done in establishing basic command units and local partnerships, because they are the key to tackling the crimes that most members of the public are afraid of. They are also the key to tackling antisocial behaviour, and they are unlikely to be aided by central targets or central management. They will certainly not be aided by centralising budgets. I hope that the Minister will pay due attention to that issue.
I am conscious that several other Members want to speak in this debate and I do not want to take up more of the House's time. Let me stress, however, that although there are concerns about the level of funding in the west midlands, I have yet to encounter a police officer who has told me that the police are unhappy with the settlement announced today. In a hard-hitting article in the force's own newspaper, the chairman of the west midlands branch of the Police Federation was critical of certain Government proposals but concluded that the other two parties had absolutely no ideas on crime or policing. When we are paid that sort of compliment, we must assume that we are on the right track.
§ Norman Baker (Lewes)
This is a dry topic on the amount of grant and other allocations given to police authorities, but the impact of that grant is important in terms of the number of police officers in our areas and on our streets. That is how the public will measure the success of the Government's proposals this afternoon and subsequently.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) talked about police numbers and, from my understanding, the figures that he gave are correct. It is a great pity that we have only just got back to the position in 1997, when the Government were elected on a pledge to increase police numbers. The reason is clear. My view, which is shared by the chairman of the Labour party, is that the Government were wrong to stick to the Conservative Government's spending plans for the first two years of the last Parliament. If they had not done so, we would be further forward now.
I welcome the Minister's statement about extra costs for Greater Manchester police for their policing of the riots and for the Commonwealth games. I hope that he will be equally clear about money for the Metropolitan police to cover the costs that they are incurring to deal with the threat of terrorism, ahead of the precept which will be announced without much further delay.
The headline figure that the Government have been keen to trumpet in the paper that they have published is 6.1 per cent. That follows the headline figure of 10.1 per 314 cent. last year, so the Government will be keen to say how much more is going into local policing. It is worth noting that the figure has fallen, and according to the comprehensive spending review will fall again next year to only 3.1 per cent., which is close to the inflation rate.
§ Mrs. Brooke
Does my hon. Friend agree that residents of Dorset, who currently pay the third highest precept, will not be terribly impressed with that headline figure, given that they are not seeing more police on the streets, which is what they want, despite paying those high levels and facing large increases in the precept?
§ Norman Baker
That is right. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire touched on the issue of the precept, as will I. The Government are presenting us with a pool in which the water looks crystal clear but when one sticks a piece of wood in it and stirs it around all sorts of muck comes up from the bottom, and it is less clear when the detritus has risen to the surface. There are a number of hidden problems with the 6.1 per cent. increase.
By the Government's own admission, the amount being paid directly to local police authorities averages only 2.8 per cent. That allows for an anticipated precept from the police standard spending assessment, which will come through. Therefore, of the 6.1 per cent. increase, more than half—3.3 per cent.—will be allocated for central funding proposals. Even on the Government's figures, only five of the 38 police authorities will get 3 per cent. or more. That is hardly a huge increase. Some increases are as low as 2.3 per cent., which is the Government's baseline inflation figure.
The pay award in 2001–02 was 3.5 per cent. Therefore, the base figure of 2.3 per cent. fails even to keep up with the pay award. The pay award for next year is anticipated to be along the same lines. Authorities such as North Yorkshire anticipate a shortfall of £1.1 million this year as a consequence of the Government's formula. Last year, it received £2.014 million in the rural funding element, which provided 60 new officers. That is very good: we are all in favour of 60 new officers in rural areas. As a rural Member, I know that they are badly needed.
This year's rural funding formula produces £2.018 million, which is an increase of only £4,000, but the authority has to pay the increase in the salaries of the 60 officers whom it took on last year in good faith. Therefore, the authority will immediately face budget problems. It estimates a shortfall that will have to be met by savings of 5 per cent. on non-operational budgets and big precept rises, which is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made. The Association of Police Authorities has said that 2.8 per cent. is insufficient, and that 5 per cent. is needed just to stand still.
I draw the Minister's attention to a recent press release from Cleveland police, which stated:A potential cash crisis is putting police services in Cleveland under threat.Despite the Government's much trumpeted 6.1 per cent. increase in funding nationwide the reality is … earmarked by the Home Office for the Cleveland Force is 2.85 per cent.—which fails to even cover pay award rises.315As a result the Force is facing a £6 million deficit—the equivalent to losing 240 police officers—and a host of plans to improve services for local people and make life more difficult for criminal may go on ice.The picture, then, may not be quite as rosy as the Minister would have us believe.
Let us consider the direct grant—never mind the standard spending assessment and the capital figure. According to the House of Commons Library, the direct grant for every police authority in England is now less than it was last year, if we allow for an increase in inflation. In other words, every police authority will have experienced a real-terms decrease in the grant provided by the Government—which is, after all, what we are discussing. Last year, every authority experienced a real-terms increase, except Surrey, which is a special case because of the London arrangements.
That has a number of implications. For one thing, there will be a greater reliance on the precept, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire pointed out. That means big increases in Sussex and in other police authorities up and down the country, which in turn means that people will pay more council tax without necessarily seeing more police officers as a consequence.
§ Norman Baker
I am surprised by what the hon. Gentleman says, because I took his earlier intervention to be critical of the settlement. In any case, we are here to discuss the Government's settlement: it is they who are presenting the proposals. We made it clear at the last election that we would increase police resources significantly, and that remains our position.
What we would also do is ensure that police money was allocated in a way that was supported by police authorities and, as far as possible, by the police themselves. Can the Minister say whether chief constables are happy with the settlement, and, perhaps more importantly, with the division of it? It is not just a case of budget uncertainty; there is more and more money to bid for. There are more and more central funds, which makes it difficult for police authorities to set precepts. They are not sure of the parameters, or of how much will be provided. It is the same problem that local authorities have had for years. It is getting worse for them, and now it will get worse for police authorities.
Another problem is creeping centralisation. The Government's own figures, also provided by the Library, suggest that while the increase for police authorities directly will be 2.8 per cent., the increase for centrally provided services will be 83.1 per cent. The increase for specific initiatives will be 51.4 per cent., and the increase in central capital funds will be 33.6 per cent. The increase for the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which is now centrally controlled, will be 23.8 per cent. We are seeing huge percentage increases in all the pockets of money that are centrally controlled—huge increases in areas in which Ministers themselves give discretion. Police authorities, however, which are locally accountable, will receive an overall rise of 2.8 per cent. I do not believe that chief constables will support that.
§ Mr. Denham
I assume that the hon. Gentleman would include in his definition of centralising projects the 316 development of a national DNA database, or the development of the Airwave communications system. Do the Liberal Democrats believe that there should be no national DNA database? Do they think that the money should simply be devolved to police authorities so that they can decide whether they want to make better use of DNA in detection?
An element of reality in the hon. Gentleman's comments would be helpful. If he does think that the examples I have given should be central priorities, he is not making a great deal of sense.
§ Norman Baker
A lot of money that is spent centrally could be devolved. It is not clear why the crime fighting fund, for instance, has not been devolved. That is a huge amount of money. Nor is it clear why the rural policing fund is to be held centrally. These are the big figures; the DNA database, in terms of—
§ Mr. Denham
I do not think the hon. Gentleman understands. The rural policing fund constitutes a recognition by central Government that the existing police formula did not adequately represent the needs of sparsely populated areas. Extra money could be provided for such areas only if central Government created a fund allocated to police authorities, but what the money is spent on is determined by the police authorities.
§ Norman Baker
That money is still outside the normal police authority funding settlement. A special fund has been set up that does not need to be administered centrally. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) said when he was in the Chamber, that fund could be wrapped up in the formula that is applied directly to local police authorities. It is not at the moment.
§ Mr. Luff
It is not my style to help the hon. Gentleman but in this case I would like to. The formal response from West Mercia police authority to the Home Office consultation states:The additional resources allocated via a number of specific ringfenced initiatives are welcome but the Police Authority views the growth of ringfenced initiatives per se as regrettable. It leads to uncertainties in medium term financial plans, disrupted spending patterns and undermines the local democratic process.
§ Norman Baker
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening. He makes the case very well. The Minister will have to address that point. Ring-fencing of funds centrally is not popular as a long-term strategy, but there is an increasing tendency towards that. [Interruption.] The Minister may laugh but people in my police authority—police officers in Sussex, local councillors and others—do not like the creeping centralisation that the Government have embarked on. It is dangerous.
As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, there are proposals from the Home Secretary to take for himself sweeping powers to sack chief constables. In Sussex, we have been at the rough end of that already—one local chief constable has already been sacked via a press release by the Home Secretary. It seems that he wants to go further.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now confine his remarks to the grant.
§ Norman Baker
I am happy to do so. I was making the point—I am sorry if I did not make myself entirely 317 clear—that the way the grant is allocated determines the level of local accountability within the police service. Centralisation of grant money and funds by the Home Office gives it extra leverage over the independence of local police authorities and forces, which is mirrored by the proposal to allow the Home Secretary to sack chief constables.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
Centralisation is an arbitrary process. Does my hon. Friend agree that it does not give certainty in relation to future planning, especially for police forces in rural areas where the sparsity factor is not properly included in the calculations?
§ Norman Baker
I agree. The history of such centralisation has not been a happy one in local government. We need to start moving away from it rather than increasing the tendency towards it.
As for the effect that the grant will have on the number of police officers, the Government are moving in the right direction and I pay tribute to their efforts in the past couple of years to increase the number of police officers. I accept that they are succeeding in increasing the recruitment of officers, but they are not ensuring that they are retained, which is a different matter. I am sure that the Minister will try to address that.
The Minister will know, for example, that in the past year resignations in the Metropolitan police increased by 29 per cent. over the previous year. The number of officers who transferred to other forces increased by 63 per cent. Resignations in the west midlands force increased by 32 per cent. over the previous year. The figure for Greater Manchester is 29 per cent. The Government are doing good work on recruitment but they need to find a way to ensure that officers are retained because it is obvious that that is not happening. If that pattern of loss were to continue at length, we would have a preponderance of new officers without sufficient training, because it is the experienced officers who are leaving. That is bad for the balance within the police force.
What assumptions have been made in the budget proposals set out today about community support officers. How many does the Minister assume will be in place in 12 months? He must have made that calculation in order to work out the grant. When he made that assumption, he will have had an assumption about what those persons will do—clearly, the functions that they are given will determine how many are required. If they are to carry out non-controversial functions, such as dealing with untaxed vehicles, which I think all hon. Members would support, that represents a different order of things. Among the more controversial suggestions from the Government, however, are those relating to powers of detention and so on.
I welcome the overall 6.1 per cent. increase, but I am concerned at the way in which it is being divided. It is unfortunate that there is more centralisation and ring fencing, and I hope that the Government will try to reverse that trend in years to come.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
I welcome the opportunity to address the thorny issue of police funding, and I also welcome the Minister's announcement of an increase in resources of 6.1 per cent., coupled with the important agenda of reform. Listening to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I was a little confused as to whether the Conservative party embraces the reform agenda or is merely cherry-picking bits of that difficult procedure for its own party political advantage.
Time is short, so I shall address three specific areas: problems relating to retention and recruitment, particularly in the south-east; policing and the consequences for police resourcing in Reading; and the fundamental fault line that runs through the heart of the police funding formula. Governments of all persuasions have recognised the need to review that formula, and such a review cannot come quickly enough.
In talking about policing or any other public service, one should set out one's credentials. As a child of the 1960s, I did not always enjoy an enthusiastic relationship with the police. In fact, I first encountered my current area commander when he was a special patrol group officer on the Grunwick picket line. I am not sure whether he is personally responsible for a rather large scar on my right shin, but we have moved on and we now laugh about that encounter over a beer. I am honoured and privileged to be about to graduate from the police service parliamentary scheme, which I commend to other hon. Members. It gives fascinating and invaluable insight into the work of our police officers.
Ministers are well aware of the huge problems, to which reference has already been made, faced by all public service providers in high-cost housing areas in the south-east. However, under the crime fighting fund, which I welcomed with open arms, the Thames Valley police force received funding for only 200 additional officers for the period 1999–2001. Despite record recruitment levels in the force and nationally, and despite the additional £2,000 regional cost of living allowance for which many of us lobbied, in real terms the Thames Valley force has not one extra police officer. In fact, we are losing officers to other forces as fast as we can recruit them.
What does the absurd notion of splitting operational independence from budgetary independence mean? It means that, in effect, our council tax payers—including those represented by Opposition Members, and by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), with whom I have worked closely on this issue—are funding a recruitment agency for other, better policed forces. I hope that the Minister and other hon. Members will address that point.
As a result of the shortages that we face, Thames Valley officers are squeezed from both ends. Overtime levels are at a record high and, in the short term, officers like that situation, but it leads to increased stress in the long term. Having to work overtime just to put a roof over their heads is stressful. The problem is doubly bad in urban areas such as Slough and Reading, which attract many thousands of people from other areas, and that requires extra policing.
The Thames valley—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough will forgive me if, in discussing policing in Reading and the Thames valley, I mention her constituency from time to time—is a growth area with an 319 expanding population. Its police force has to protect the royal family and many other dignitaries. Some of them deserve such protection, but in the case of others the matter is open to debate. The area has extensive defence industries and major motorways. In short, it has a huge policing requirement, yet according to a Home Office table, in terms of the number of officers per 100,000 population, Thames Valley police force has been the third worst in the country since 31 March 2001. The best is Merseyside, with 351 officers per 100,000 people. Not unsurprisingly, that is followed by the Metropolitan police, which has 209 officers per 100,000. The Thames Valley force comes 41st out of 43, with 175 officers per 100,000 people, and the West Mercia force has 171. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) represents an area covered by the West Mercia force. As he is an Opposition Whip, he is banned from speaking, so I shall speak for him. At 43rd in the list is the Suffolk constabulary, with something over 160 officers per 100,000 people in its area.
Interestingly, my research leads me to believe that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was churlish not to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the increase of 84 police officers that has taken place in his force over the past 12 months. I am sure that, on behalf of the people of Cambridgeshire, my hon. Friend will be pleased that that information has been read into the record.
§ Fiona Mactaggart
Does my hon. Friend share my anger at the low number of police per 100,000 people in Slough? The force covers a large area, but it is not just a rural force, as it also has to cover the urban area of Slough. The basic crime unit family includes other bits of police forces, all of which are in the Metropolitan police area in inner London.
§ Mr. Salter
My hon. Friend is right. Slough has all London's policing problems, yet it does not get the resources it needs. That is having a knock-on effect on neighbouring authorities. There are fundamental flaws in the way the crime unit families are constructed, in the notion of operational independence versus budgetary independence, and in resource allocation.
I turn now to the standstill—or modest increase—in police numbers over the past 10 years. Figures provided by the chief constable of the Thames Valley force—not by the Home Office, or Millbank—do not make good reading for Conservative Members. They show that on 31 March 1997, the force had a total of 3,695 officers, an all-time low. That was under a Conservative Government. Under the Labour Government, the force reached an all-time high of 3,765, although that is nothing to boast about. As a result of the crime fighting fund, the force now has 0.5 of an officer less than in 1999. The fund therefore has achieved no growth in police numbers at all.
The allocation of these meagre resources to the Thames Valley force has had an effect in the area. Admittedly, the boundaries involved have changed slightly in the period to which I want to refer, but the scale of the problem remains the same for Slough. In 1990, it had 585 officers, whereas now it has 237. Reading had 526 officers in 1990, and that number has fallen to 342.
The total resource allocation formula used to arrive at the figures ripped off Reading and Slough in a quite disgraceful way. That decision was taken under the 320 devolved powers given to the local police authority. I repeat: there is a world of difference between budgetary independence and operational independence.
There are many challenges involved in policing a regional centre. Reading has expanded out of all recognition. I have dug out the figures for crimes committed in the town centre. I assure my right hon. Friend the Minister that many of his constituents shop at the Oracle centre in Reading. We regularly bump into people from Cardiff, Bristol, Banbury and all over the place. We welcome them to our town, but their presence creates policing problems.
Between April 1999 and March 2001, shoplifting in Reading town centre rose by 16 per cent. In the same period, the number of robberies in the town centre rose by 61 per cent., and crimes of violence against the person rose by 60 per cent. There have been massive increases in incidents involving not, violent disorder and affray in Reading, with the figure rising from 1,400 in 1998–99 to 3,800 in the last full year.
How does the police funding formula address those issues? The answer is that it fails spectacularly to do so. I accept that no funding formula is perfect, but it would be difficult to devise a system that was less advantageous to towns such as Reading and Slough, which provide a huge range of services for tens of thousands of people who live in, and pay taxes in, communities many miles away.
I took the trouble to dig out the Library notes on the police funding formula. The factors used in the formula are worth quoting, as they include daytime population, resident population, unemployment, household renting, area cost adjustment and built-up road lengths. People asleep in bed or busy at work are not a major factor in the creation of crime, nor are lengths of built-up roads. These funding formula factors do not take into account the fact that in a town such as Reading 20,000 public entertainment licences are granted. Similar figures apply in Slough, Oxford and elsewhere. The night-time economy creates a tremendous strain on the police force.
I am delighted that the working group is meeting to consider the funding formula. I hope that a new formula can be devised and introduced by 2003–04 and that it will take into account the need for the policing requirements of a night-time population to be addressed.
I conclude with a parallel. It is a supreme irony that, prior to becoming Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was Secretary of State for Education and Employment. In education, the funding formula is very straightforward—the funding follows the pupil. In my town of Reading this year, as a result of boundary changes and other anomalies, we are expecting some 1,400 year 6 pupils to seek secondary education across the boundaries in west Berkshire or Wokingham. There is no problem with that because the funding follows the pupil—how could it be any other way?—yet does the funding follow the policing requirements of the night-time population of Slough or Reading? Does it heck!
I hope that the Minister has found this analysis useful. I look forward to meeting him to discuss the very real policing problems that we have in Reading and Slough and to addressing some of these important issues. It cannot be acceptable for the Government to put money in 321 and for my constituents not to see the benefit of the additional resources to which they have contributed in their taxes.
§ Tony Baldry (Banbury)
I hope that the Minister pays particular attention to the speech of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I agree with much of what he said, not least his concern about the haemorrhaging of police officers from the Thames valley area.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome the Home Secretary's police grant allocation to the Thames Valley force, which polices my constituency in north Oxfordshire and Oxfordshire as a whole. The Home Secretary is a generous man. The Thames Valley police will now receive the fifth highest allowance from the Government, an appropriate amount that seemingly reflects the Home Secretary's funding formula of more money to those who need it most. Good stuff. However, it begs the question, what will the Thames Valley police do with the new grant? That is where we encounter a very real problem. The grant looks good on paper and in isolation, but it looks bad when one considers the detail of the Thames Valley's grant in comparison with other forces in England and Wales.
The Thames Valley's resources look meagre. Moreover, given the chronic problems of recruitment and, in particular, retention of police officers in the force. Home Office figures show that police strength within the Thames valley area has fallen year on year since 1997, and I hope that sooner or later the Home Office will wake up to that fact. The Thames Valley simply does not have the police officers to match the aspirations that come with such a grant.
Let us start with the basics of the funding formula for police grants. I alluded earlier to what the police grant report somewhat grandly refers to as the Home Secretary's principal formula. Also like the hon. Member for Reading, West, I have examined the principles behind the formula and have noted two interesting facts. First, paragraph 5.2 rightly says that the main determinants in the principal formula are the resident population and the day-time population. It says that cost adjustments are built into this formula for the socio-economic circumstances and the cost of provision between areas.
I do not dispute that Government principle. There is no doubt that the allocation of police grants should be made on the basis of the area's population demand on police officers and the cost of providing police officers. That principle means that the Thames Valley is allocated one of the country's highest grants.
The second Government principle, which I find interesting, is in paragraph 4.4, which states:The Home Secretary has decided that the greater London Authority on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Authority should receive additional funding in recognition of the Metropolitan Police's distinct national and capital city functions.That justification is acceptable when the principle relates to population: there is no doubt that London officers have more people to police. However, the principle is less convincing if applied to the area costs for police officers in London against other forces in the south-east. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens. 322 Why do the Government suddenly apply such a principle to police pay only if the officers work in London? It is clear from future funding allocations that the Government are still failing to tackle the core cause of crime in the Thames valley: the failure to recruit and—more important and of greater concern at present—the failure to retain police officers through a serious lack of resources for police pay. It is no good for the Government to trumpet what is after all only a marginal increase in money from the comprehensive spending review when they persistently refuse to recognise the need for additional resources for the south-eastern region.
Thames Valley police officers are in the worst of all possible worlds. Their cost of living, including housing, is high, yet they do not benefit from the additional allowances paid to London police officers. I suspect that almost every force in the country must look more attractive to police officers than the Thames Valley force.
Police officers in the Metropolitan force receive an annual London weighting of £1,773, with an additional London allowance of £1,001 and, on top of that, a further London allowance of as much as £3,327 each year. That means that a police officer in London could earn about £6,000 a year more than a police officer in the Thames valley for doing exactly the same job.
Furthermore, police officers in London also have free transport, so it is not uncommon—I am told by senior police officers in the Thames valley—for Thames Valley officers to see fellow police officers on railway stations on their way to work in London, where they will be paid significantly more, and being given free travel to do it. That is plainly unfair and unjustified.
Police officers in the south-east have to cope with a cost of living that the Government's principle does not seem to take into account when it comes to paying them. Last year, a survey by the Halifax found a massive 17 per cent. increase in house prices in the south-east, but only a 7 per cent. increase in the rest of England and Wales, yet the Government do not pay officers so as to reflect that difference. The Government recognise the "cost of provision" in police grants but completely ignore the same principle—the same costs—when paying police officers.
Moreover, we need to consider the difference in house prices in the south-east compared with London. The Land Registry's latest quarterly survey observes that house prices in London are rising more slowly than those outside the capital in the south-east region. Indeed, the Halifax survey also found that although house prices have risen by an average of £4,000 in London, they have risen by a staggering £26,000 in Oxfordshire over the same period. Why are the Government not funding police officers in north Oxfordshire as adequately as in north Acton? Why do the principles outlined in the report suddenly morph into thin air when it comes to police pay?
It is no wonder that police retention is at an all-time low in the Thames valley. A large number of officers resign for non-medical reasons. The consequence is often all too clear: there are too few officers to police towns such as Banbury and Bicester and the villages in my constituency. In the whole of north Oxfordshire, in towns such as Banbury and in the surrounding villages, there are often no more than four police officers on duty at any one time.
If the Government do not pay police officers in the Thames valley properly, the force will continue to haemorrhage experienced officers to other forces where 323 they can either earn more or live for less. London and the east midlands, on the borders of the Thames valley, offer both prospects to police officers, so why should officers come to the Thames valley?
As the hon. Member for Reading, West pointed out, the Thames Valley police force merely acts as an expensive training area for officers who move on. Even more important, when the beat inspector in Banbury sends out a team to police north Oxfordshire, it often includes a large proportion of new recruits. We lack the experience of senior officers who have moved elsewhere.
It was particularly insulting of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), in response to an oral question that I asked on the matter, to claim that Thames Valley officers must be paid less because the Government believe that it reflectsthe different circumstances and pressures"—[Official Report, 19 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 10.]that they face, compared with the circumstances and pressures that they would face if they were doing the same job in other forces around the country. This is nonsense.
The Home Secretary's recent statement on police reform outlined that officers in all forces face the same problems in policing. Surely the fact that the Thames Valley is in the top five police grant receivers based on "resident population" and "socio- economic characteristics" would in itself indicate that police officers working in the area face at least the possibility of more pressure.
I have taken the liberty of leafing through the Home Office's own figures of recorded crime for 2001. They reveal that that possibility is very much a reality. Let us consider violent crime dealt with by each police force over the last year, which is a yardstick that, I hope most hon. Members would agree, presents officers with the "different circumstances and pressures" to which the Under-Secretary was presumably alluding. I found that police officers in the Thames valley had to deal with nearly 15,000 cases of violent crime—the 11th highest figure for the 41 forces. If it is the Government's principle to pay Metropolitan officers more because they deal with more cases of violent crime, why are police officers in north Wales paid the same as Thames Valley officers, when officers in north Wales have to deal with a third of the violent crimes that Thames Valley officers have to? Why is the apparent Government principle of paying less to officers doing a supposedly less important job ignored when it comes to Humberside police officers, who deal with 5,000 fewer violent crimes than those officers who work in the Thames valley?
The House might also like to note that the Halifax building society estimates that the cost of the average property in south Humberside is £46,700, whereas the same property in Oxfordshire would cost £162,450. It is little wonder that police officers are leaving.
It is pretty obvious why north Oxfordshire—and the Thames valley as a whole—continues to lose officers to other forces in England and Wales. Thames Valley police officers deserve sufficient pay to live on so that they can deliver to local people the peace of mind to which they are entitled. It is audacious of the Government to announce in their latest White Paper "Policing a New Century" thata fairer and better system is needed for paying police officers. As a general principle"—324 I should like the House to note that phrase—the Government will be looking for ways of recognising and rewarding those who are at the frontline of public service, and in particular those shouldering the most difficult and demanding tasks".For all those warm words, I do not find that "general principle" reflected in the pay awarded to uniformed police officers in the Thames Valley compared with uniformed officers in Humberside, North Wales or 30 or so other forces. The same lack of "general principle" is applied by the Government to officers, whether sergeants or inspectors, uniformed or detective.
I very much hope that the Government will take on board what Thames Valley police and Members of Parliament are saying this afternoon. I strongly suspect that the Minister will hear similar sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).
I recently received a copy of a letter that a police sergeant from my constituency wrote to the Home Secretary. At one point the officer made the observation thatlast week we had another murder in Oxford. The duty inspector phoned round off duty officers to find two to do a 12 hour duty on double pay to guard the scene—no takers! All already working".It strikes me, therefore, that while the Thames Valley strives to achieve the Government's objectives, it will simply not have the resources to reach those targets without the almost superhuman efforts of existing officers.
The officer also asked the Home Secretary:do you really think that you are going to attract talented, professional people to the service, with the kind of output, that is apparently designed to undermine Police Officers' case to maintain their standard of living, coming from the Government recently? … those of my staff who have children rely on their overtime to keep their heads above water, financially.
§ Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)
I welcome the record level of funding that has been announced, and, in particular, the amount allocated to the West Midlands force. I am also pleased with the crime fighting fund, now in its third year; later I shall discuss how the West Midlands force has benefited from the fund.
The 12 per cent. real-terms increase in funding between 2000–01 and 2003–04 is welcome because it means that the police will be in a better position to fulfil the task that we, as a society, expect of them. In addition to the revenue grants covered by the report, there are capital amounts. I welcome the amount that will be used to establish the DNA database and a computerised custody system.
I want to address some of the centralisation issues and swingeing powers, as they were called by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), and to try to show that there is nothing unusual in demanding accountability in the police as in other public services. It is axiomatic that the grant of money has a corollary—a responsibility to account for its use. Of course, there is the biblical parable of the three servants who were entrusted by their master with equal sums, and the one blessed was the one who used the money wisely in the master's absence. So there is nothing wrong with asking the police to account for the money granted. That accountability runs alongside the accountability that 325 operates at local level through police authorities and local partnerships. The issue is how to measure accountability, and one way to do so is through police performance.
Hon. Members are concerned that performance varies around the country, as is shown, for example, in recorded crime detection rates. I am pleased that the operational command unit in Dudley, North has the highest number of crimes detected per officer in the West Midlands force. I pay tribute to the police officers in my area for the sterling work that they do. That is a comfort to me as the local Member of Parliament, but I cannot be happy that recorded crime detection rates vary dramatically throughout the country. For example, the figure is less than 8 per cent. for burglary in some areas, whereas it is more than 43 per cent. in others. In some cases, the figure for robbery is as low as 15 per cent.; in others it is 50 per cent. No doubt, that variation can be explained in some cases by social and economic factors.
I recently received a strong letter from a constable in my constituency who told me that there was a vast difference between policing in the intense urban conurbation of the west midlands and policing in some of the more relaxed rural shires. There is a certain truth in what he had to say, but performance can and must be improved, so I welcome proposals, which we are not debating this afternoon, such as the creation of the standards unit, which will work alongside the inspectorate to identify and ventilate best practice.
Let me return to the theme of responsibility for using the grant wisely, and then accounting for performance. I raise that issue because the view has been expressed in some quarters that the police are in a different position from other public services. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) referred to the proposed arrangements to exercise a power to remove chief officers on grounds of inefficiency. Some of the other proposals have attracted fire on the basis that, somehow, the police do not have to account for money granted in the same way as other public services. I do not accept that.
At one level, accountability involves compliance with standards—for example, the performance standards to which I have referred: detection rates. At another level, accountability flows from the extent to which the police can be called to account for their behaviour—for example, police complaints procedures. Again, although this is not the subject of this debate, the new independent police complaints commission should enhance satisfaction with the way in which complaints against the police are handled. Incidentally, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond at some point on the issue of the complaints procedures operating internally. I have written to him about the extent to which the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 should apply to the police.
A third level of accountability for the money granted is political accountability. One dimension is the extent to which we ask questions about how the police operate. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) mentioned the issue of retention rates in the West Midlands force. To some extent, that parallels the issues raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) because, like the Thames Valley force, the West Midlands force has suffered from an attrition of officers. Last year, 101 326 officers left to join other forces. It was the worst year since 1997, when the ratio of leavers to new recruits was also 4:1. One explanation is that other areas have benefited from the crime fighting fund and can now recruit as they could not in the past. Therefore, people who have been trained in the West Midlands force are now going back to their home areas.
Another point mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Minister in correspondence is that the attrition rate in the police force remains low compared with other public services. I also take that point into account. I hope that, in the coming year, he will address issues such as the discrepancy in allowances, to which hon. Members have referred this afternoon. Certainly, the Police Federation in the west midlands has raised with all hon. Members who have constituencies in the area the issue of a special housing allowance, and the fact that that was abolished in the 1990s.
Accountability in terms of asking questions about how the money is spent can be carried out in the House, and it can also be done locally. I shall see my chief constable in the near future and I shall raise with him the issue of allocation of officers in the West Midlands force. In terms of figures on crimes recorded as opposed to officers allocated, I shall make the point—it may have a detrimental effect on other constituencies—that Dudley, North should have more officers.
Another dimension to the issue of accountability for the money granted is the argument, which was echoed in the opening remarks of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, that the police are somehow unaccountable and independent. Some very old legal authorities say that police officers are independent officers of the law, and are not servants of anyone—they are only answerable to the law itself. That analysis is deeply flawed.
§ Norman Baker
Is not the prime method of accountability the local, elected and accountable police authority? Does not taking more power to the centre weaken that accountability?
§ Ross Cranston
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has followed the flow of my remarks. Accountability operates at a range of levels—there is local accountability and national accountability. Hon. Members must be able to raise questions in the House about what happens.
I reject the notion that the police are different and do not have to be accountable. It is certainly a constitutional imperative that there can be no interference in their individual case decisions. That would be monstrous. However, it is perfectly consistent with constitutional principle that the police grants that we are considering should be conditional on the police acting accountably in terms of their behaviour and their performance.
§ Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)
I wish to address the problems faced by Norfolk police. Governments of both persuasions have historically provided a relatively low level of funding for our police. I would not claim that our problems are as intense as some of those faced in inner-city conurbations, but I hope that the Minister will take my points on board.
The Minister knows that expenditure on policing per head of population in Norfolk is the 10th lowest in England and Wales. It is the second largest county, but it 327 has the fourth lowest ratio of police officers to population, and the police face increased demands for their services. Norfolk's population rose from 759,000 in 1991 to nearly 800,000 last year. More than I million tourists visit the county in the course of a year. Although we welcome them, they place an additional strain on policing. Like other areas, Norfolk has a royal residence, at Sandringham, and significant military bases. Those are vulnerable to terrorism and the Norfolk police force is involved in their protection.
The number of 999 calls to the force control room in 1996–97 was 63,000. It is anticipated that by the end of this year the number will have risen to 110,000, an increase of 72 per cent. Even with the use of civilian resources, that places an additional strain on the police service. There has also been an increase in certain types of crime. Crime has decreased in many parts of the country, but the Minister knows that there is a fear of crime in rural areas. In Norfolk, we had the high-profile case of Tony Martin, and there has been an increase in robbery and vandalism in many rural communities. We now have the prospect of the damage caused by raves, especially on farms. Like other hon. Members, we have a problem with travellers who, two Christmases ago, descended on Great Yarmouth, which put an enormous strain on policing.
Next year's Government grant for Norfolk represents a 3.6 per cent. increase, which is the second highest budget increase after Derbyshire. Other hon. Members may well ask what I have to complain about. The increase is warmly welcomed, but it does not begin to meet the requirements of the Norfolk police. The reality is that it brings the police authority to a standstill. It requires an increase of at least 4 per cent., and even at that level, according to the police authority, recruitment and current service levels could not be maintained.
The standstill budget will not enable the police force to reach its target on the recruitment of officers. As the Minister knows, Norfolk already has one of the lowest officer to population ratios.
§ Mr. Simpson
No, I am sorry, but I have limited time.
Indeed, the Norfolk police force has identified that it needs an additional 340 officers fully to meet all anticipated requirements in the medium term. The increase will not enable investment in necessary information technology infrastructure. To give but one example, Norfolk is one of only two forces still on Holmes I—it sounds like something out of Arthur Conan Doyle—which is an obsolescent and largely discarded computer system for use in major incident inquiries. Nor can the increase provide dedicated air cover. Geographically Norfolk is one of the largest counties with a long coastline, but its police force is one of only four without dedicated police helicopter cover.
Those specific examples of serious weaknesses in police cover in Norfolk would be bad enough in the context of a standstill budget had the Government not already rejected specific bids by the county. In December last year, Norfolk police force learned that its bid for funding to help to pay for a £13.5 million upgrade in the county's police technology under the capital 328 modernisation fund had been unsuccessful. The bid was essential for the development of the force's information and communication technology infrastructure to enable implementation of the national strategy for police information system applications that the Government require all forces to employ. The chief constable advised the Home Secretary that that left Norfolk police in the position of having either to fund those infrastructure requirements by taking money from current activity, or to slow down—or even to halt—some aspects of the implementation programme during the next four to five years.
The Home Office has also been unhelpful in Norfolk's bid for Government funding for a helicopter. Norfolk police asked the Home Office for £1 million to cover the full cost of buying a reconditioned second-hand helicopter. They explained that a helicopter could save hundreds of thousands of pounds every year, as well as facilitating the arrest of criminals. They gave the example of Dyfed-Powys police, who saved £22 million over three years by using a helicopter rather than police on the ground.
The Home Office, however, said that the money could be provided for a helicopter only on a 50:50 basis, with half coming from the Government and half from the police force. At a meeting in December, the police explained to the Home Office that half-funding a new helicopter would cost the Government £1 million—enough money to buy a second-hand helicopter outright—but the Home Office said that funding rules could not be changed and that Norfolk police would have to use their own budget. Reluctantly, Norfolk police withdrew their bid as they needed what money they had to recruit extra police personnel and upgrade force technology.
Norfolk police, like many other police, find themselves in the worst of all possible binds, from which it appears that there is no way out. They are bidding against other police forces. The biggest irony of everything that I have just identified—the lack of money to spend on new technology or provide a helicopter—is that next week Her Majesty the Queen opens a new purpose-built police headquarters south of Norwich, provided under the Government public-private partnership scheme. However, like many other Government PPP schemes, such as the recently opened Norfolk and Norwich hospital, it leaves much to be desired. The new centralised police headquarters which, if properly equipped and manned, would save money and deliver better policing, is likely to be a largely empty box. It will not have new information technology, the need for which the Home Office itself has identified, and it will not be able to communicate with police personnel on the ground. The chief constable has already admitted that he does not have enough police men and women on the ground. A further bind is that money is not available to provide a helicopter.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that Norfolk, despite receiving what appears to be a headline-worthy good grant, has a standstill budget. Will he look again, both at Norfolk's bid for funding for an upgrade of the police ICT infrastructure and the rules for funding the purchase of a second-hand helicopter? Otherwise, Norfolk police will be unable to provide a proper service to meet current requirements, let alone future ones. At the end of the day, the police men and women who have to deliver that service will decide, not that there is a better police force to go to, but that there are better jobs.
329 Last Sunday, there was a new episode of "A Touch of Frost". The irony of that programme is that there is a contradiction between two types of policing—Inspector Frost is the old lag who cuts corners, bends the rules and is concerned with tackling crime on the streets, and Superintendent Mullett is the managerial policeman, who is primarily concerned with paperclip counting. Modern policing requires both characteristics in the same man or woman; I regret that, although the funding provided so far appears generous, we will not end up with the kind of men and women whom Norfolk requires.
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson); his analogies about how television cops relate to real life gives us a spirit of realism. I shall try to keep my remarks brief so that other Members can contribute to this important debate. It is traditional that I take part, and I usually do so with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), but since she has been elevated to the Front Bench, it looks like I will be the one to keep going from year to year.
The Government's action sends out some good signals. I congratulate them on listening to people on three issues. Simply getting more police out on the beat is a measure of the effective role played by my right hon. Friend the Minister. That increase is being achieved in my area, despite a difficult position; we are experiencing retirements and are approaching a particularly difficult time in a few years as the big police increases under the last Labour Government have an impact on retirement, creating the need for further recruitment. The revenue that the police have received will result in capital spending, and I shall say more about that in a minute.
I congratulate the Government on keeping Gloucestershire constabulary; there was a movement to get rid of small police forces and amalgamation was held to be the way forward. I am pleased that we have been listened to locally; we have come up with a sensible compromise, involving better working arrangements with other emergency services, principally ambulance and fire services, which has resulted in the tri-service initiative that the Government helped to fund. Gloucestershire police will move to a new headquarters, which has changed attitudes radically, although not without problems, as my right hon. Friend the Minister will know. However, it is a good sign that there are improvements and that we are being listened to.
I do not wish to rehearse arguments that have already been made, but there are drawbacks to being a relatively small force. We have talked a lot about budgets. Ours is not one of the areas that is singing from the rooftops about what it has received, and it has misgivings about ring fencing, but genuine increases have been made and we will work within our budget. As a smaller force, the implied savings cut us to the quick. I had a meeting with the chief constable recently, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will pick up our plea for dispensation, not necessarily now, but when it comes to renegotiating budgets. Having efficiency savings year on year is an attractive notion, but they are difficult for smaller forces 330 to achieve. Can some dispensation be allowed? Although we have to be efficient, that should not be at the cost of good, effective services. That issue has not yet been brought out in our debate.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the sparsity factor which, I hope, will play a part in future negotiations and help us to achieve an even better budget settlement and a sensible replacement for the standard spending assessment. However, I am sure that that argument has been heard; our debate can only enhance it.
Every year, I discuss the impact of the pensions time bomb, but the problem is more acute this year than in previous years, and I urge my right hon. Friend to recognise it. It is not of our making; the deal was done under the Thatcher Government to keep the police on board, coincidentally or not at the time of the miners' strike. Police officers make a considerable contribution to their pension, but it is virtually impossible to improve the provision that they have. We are trying to negotiate with the Police Federation which, I understand, is listening; we shall have to come up with a sensible compromise, but that is not easy. I am sure that that is behind the vote which, I hope, is in favour of modernisation.
Whenever I talk to the police, they moan about the contribution that they have to make, but they also think about their future, as they retire on a good pension, probably the best in the public sector, if not any sector. It is difficult to improve that provision, but we must grasp the problems that it presents because, if it is affordable now, it will certainly not be in five or 10 years' time. I am a bit worried that there is already evidence of backtracking. Even if change is painful in the short term, the Government have to see through the transition to a more sensible system.
I am pleased with the capital arrangements which, although not generous, are helpful to Gloucestershire. They have helped the tri-service arrangements and the movement towards the Airwave system. In Gloucestershire we have some difficulties—I shall be careful how I phrase this, as an inquiry is going on—getting the planning applications through for the masts so that the system can be put in place. I always try to explain to people that, although the introduction of such systems must be measured and the precautionary principle upheld, in a couple of years we will lose the analogue system. If we do not have a digital system in place, there will be no police communications. The ambulance and fire services will no doubt also seek to digitalise and use Airwave equipment.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind that if we are a little slow getting there, that does not mean that we do not want help from the Government. We just need some time to convince people that the system is the right system, that we are very careful about the siting of masts, certainly away from schools, and that we try to make sure that all the equipment goes on the same masts. We want the system put in place and we want it funded, as the existing system is unacceptable. It causes enough difficulty, as I know from going out with the police. The only thing that would be more unacceptable is no communications system at all. We must push the new system through.
Other hon. Members have touched on the need to recognise the changing nature of policing. It is a bureaucratic nightmare, but that is the nature of the 331 society in which we live. The police are expected to account for the decisions that they take, and arresting people is probably one of their more important tasks. I shall not rehearse my exchange with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), but if we can help with the process and minimise the amount of paperwork, that would be useful. The process must be transparent, it must be funded appropriately, and people must have confidence in it.
§ David Taylor
With reference to reducing the paperwork burden on police officers, as a public institution and a public service, the police force, second only to this place, needs significantly higher levels of investment in information and communications technology to support its day-to-day work. If my hon. Friend speaks to police in his authority, particularly detective sergeants and police constables, they will tell him what proportion of their time they spend on such unproductive work.
§ Mr. Drew
My hon. Friend almost reads my mind, but not quite. I accept his point, but the problem is not an internal police matter. It involves the relationship with the Crown Prosecution Service, whether that relationship is conducted through computers or by human beings talking to one another. I have some misgivings. We have moved on from the impasse a few years ago involving who spoke to whom and how that was done. It is a resource issue and also a matter of cultures. Communication is improving, but it would help if there were computer systems that could talk to each other better. That will be expensive and take time, because technology does not seem to do what we want it to do at the appropriate moment.
I am assured that the situation is improving. It would be nice to think about local solutions, but it merely exacerbates the problem if police forces get their own systems and the CPS does not do all that we want it to do. There must be some centralisation, although I know that my chief constable and the Association of Chief Police Officers are a little worried about the apparent loss of independence. They are worried about the pressures on them to deliver policing in their area.
Effective centralisation is the only way forward. We must recognise that policing at the level of divisions, not even at the level of a county force, is where decisions have to be taken and priorities outlined, so that people have confidence in their police and policing is carried out in the most appropriate way.
I am happier this year. In the negotiations that are taking place nationally, the Government's position is clear. I wish that progress could be made more quickly, but I do not want any confrontation with the police. They are my friends, and I go out with them regularly in my constituency, so I see the problems that they have. We need to move on to make sure that the police are effective and deliver value for money, as we all want them to do.
§ 6.5 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
Several hon. Members have spoken about the proportion of the overall increase of 6.1 per cent. in the provision for policing that is being made available 332 through total standard spending to enable police authorities to meet their responsibilities, and the proportion being allocated by the Home Office for its own purposes or governed by the Home Office for initiatives that must be delivered as priorities by police authorities. I shall begin with that, and then touch on particular issues relating to Cambridgeshire, to which other hon. Members have already referred.
Of the overall 6.1 per cent.—£550 million—only about 40 per cent. is being allocated to total standard spending. So much of it is being allocated by central Government that the ability of police authorities to meet their responsibilities is being undermined. The Home Office sets its priorities for police authorities. Happily, after years of neglecting such matters, it is beginning to talk about important issues such as visible policing.
For police services such as my own in Cambridgeshire, visibility of policing is intensely difficult to achieve, given the relatively low numbers of police. Cambridgeshire has the second lowest level of funding per head of population of any police authority in the country. It is all very well setting an overall level of provision for policing, but if, as a consequence of Home Office priorities and control over spending, local police authorities cannot meet their responsibilities, there will be a deterioration in the visibility of policing, the prevention of crime and the ability to detect crime and follow it up.
We are beginning to see that in Cambridgeshire. The number of incidents has gone up by 20 per cent. in the past few years and is projected to increase at a faster rate. The number of 999 calls is going up dramatically. The ability of the police to respond to and follow up crime and to act proactively in local communities is being diminished.
The Home Office may assume that it makes provision for its own priorities, but that is not the case. In Cambridgeshire, some of the demands have to be met from the police authority's budget, and go beyond what is provided centrally by the Home Office for its own priorities. For example, £1 million is required from the local budget for the Airwaves project, £734,000 in the coming year for the implementation of the action for justice programme, £308,000 for the DNA programme, and £234,000 for the new national crime recording system. The police authority must meet those needs from its budgets, and that diminishes the sum available for its own priorities.
The situation is even worse than that. The police authority has to meet pay and pension pressures far in excess of what has been provided by the Home Office. The Home Office has said that standard spending should rise by 2.6 per cent., but grant has risen by only 2.3 per cent. There is a national settlement of 3.5 per cent. for police officers, and pension costs for the authority are rising at about 6 per cent. After the pay, inflation and pension costs have been absorbed, there is no room for any response to other local pressures. All the Home Office priorities, in addition to those that I mentioned, are biting deeply into the authority's ability to provide policing.
What is the net result? We have a modest increase in police numbers after a decline and years of trying to attain the same number of police as in 1997. However, with a modest increase in the precept for the council tax precept, the prospect for next year is that we will not meet the gateway criteria for the crime fighting fund, and will 333 therefore lose the additional 24 police who should be available through it. That is contrary to the views of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who is no longer here to hear the facts. If the police authority implemented a precept of 10 per cent., it would lose the gateway criteria and the 24 additional police. It would no longer be able to maintain its normal recruitment, and the net result would be a decline in the number of police in Cambridgeshire.
To fulfil the requirement for a 4 per cent. increase in the budget, the police authority would have to increase its precept by 20 per cent. to respond to the pressures and demands of policing in Cambridgeshire, and we are relatively underpoliced compared with the rest of the country and the police authority has to consult on a possible 30 per cent. increase in the precept in the council tax. Other increases are also being considered, including a possible 9.3 per cent. by the county council, and the district council has to consider an increase of 40 per cent. in its previously modest precept. That adds up to substantial pressures on individuals through the council tax.
The Home Office is chasing a headline figure of 6.1 per cent. and it has not accurately related it to the pressures that it places on police authorities. It is indifferent to the fact that some police authorities will have to increase the council tax dramatically, and it did not attempt to cut its coat according to local cloth. In future, it would be better for the Home Office to start by considering the policing that it wants to achieve locally and provide for greater devolution of budgets and discretion to enable local police authorities to fulfil their responsibilities.
The obvious candidate for such devolution is the crime fighting fund, and rural policing should also be taken into account in future formula allocations in order to provide properly for it. We should also take proper account of the cost of living. Other hon. Members have talked about inadequate consideration of the cost of living and the provision of a service in places outside London, such as the Thames valley.
If I have an opportunity later, I may speak about the area cost adjustment in more detail. However, people in the Thames valley should note that they will receive an 8 per cent. uplift in their allocation through the area cost adjustment, which is not available to Cambridgeshire. Yet housing costs and labour market pressures in Cambridge are at least as great as those in north Oxfordshire.
Earlier, I asked about the net result. An authority and a police service in Cambridgeshire, which have historically been poorly funded by Government, will receive an increase in grant of only 2.3 per cent. this year. Whatever other priorities may exist, the net result for my constituents will be a large increase in council tax simply to maintain existing levels of policing. They want more police to deal with the greater incidence of crime, the greater number of 999 calls and the recent increases in recorded crime.
§ Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)
I shall be brief. I congratulate the Government on the settlement for the police force in my 334 area of Cleveland, which received an increase of 4.47 per cent. If we take into account the crime fighting fund, the rural fund and the capital increases, and compare the figures with those for last year, we have received an increase of 4.9 per cent.
The figures are much higher than those under the previous Government. They appear to be increasing under our Government because of the great success of the dynamic economy that they have created. We have thus been able to allocate more money to constituencies such as mine.
The rural part of my constituency—60 per cent. of it is rural—will benefit most, because the targeted money will help greatly. We have made good progress through the crime fighting fund: under it approximately 74 officers have been allocated for 2000–03. We recruited 20 officers under that fund last year; we hope that we will be allocated 36 new officers by the end of this year; and we hope to have a further allocation of 18 officers for 2002–03.
We have also made progress on recruitment. Police numbers have increased from 1,407 in March last year to 1,434. The Government's spirit in tackling crime and ensuring that there are enough police officers to deal with it is a credit to the Labour party.
My right hon. Friend made the allocation of 4.47 per cent., which I and other Members of Parliament who represent the area appreciate, but there is a discrepancy. I understand that the Government based their calculations on tax band D and reached a figure of 7p a week for the police precept. The police authority tells me that the precept that it expects means approximately 50p a week. Its method of calculating the required amount for fighting crime and that of the Government have led to two different figures. I should be interested to know what my right hon. Friend considers to be a sensible figure. Ultimately, we must have the support of the communities that we represent and ensure that they are willing to back the increases in the police precept.
I should also be interested to know whether my right hon. Friend believes that the local authority should consult the people of Cleveland before it sets the police precept. We are considering accountability and carrying the agreement of the people, so it is important to note that the four boroughs are not keen on the increases that the police authority has mentioned, and they therefore need a steer. They told me that the police authority can impose whatever figure it wishes. I do not know whether that is true and I await my right hon. Friend's response.
I am satisfied that the Government have made great strides in tackling crime and I look forward to hearing my right hon. Friend's views.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
I shall try to truncate my remarks because other hon. Members wish to speak.
On the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), devolving policing responsibilities to the National Assembly for Wales is becoming a live issue. All the parties in the Assembly support that, and I hope that it will happen.
The Welsh total constitutes a 0.8 per cent. increase on last year, although it represents a decrease of 0.6 per cent. for North Wales police authority. It is interesting to note 335 that although Wales has a higher police grant, the Welsh proportion of the overall budget decreased slightly. However, the figure is back up to 4.9 per cent. this year.
The proposed settlement provides for an increase of 2.8 per cent. in police authority funding to support local services next year. However, many areas are pegged to the floor at 2.3 per cent. We know about the pressures on budgets, which have already been mentioned, and which include pay awards for police and support staff at 3.5 per cent., the police pension, which is a big issue, and the local cost of implementing national priorities.
A letter from the chairperson of the Association of Police Authorities to the Home Secretary on 14 January 2002 states:Our concerns are heightened by the approach adopted by the Welsh Assembly. Police authorities in Wales operate within the overall framework for policing set by the Home Secretary, including decisions on the allocation of police grant. However, local taxation is a matter for the Welsh Assembly, which has given a very clear indication of its expectations that police authorities in Wales should keep the increase in council tax to an overall maximum of 5 per cent. This stance is inconsistent with the overall policy intentions set by the Home Office, and with the practical implementation of issues such as the Crime Fighting Fund, where police authorities need to ensure sufficient funding to maintain baseline recruitment targets in order to access the Crime Fighting Fund.The letter goes on in a similar vein. That important issue has already been mentioned, so I shall not dwell on it now.
North Wales police feel aggrieved at the settlement. The Treasury gave the Home Office an additional 6.1 per cent. to spend on the police, but the amount that the Home Office has given directly is only about 2.8 per cent. The rest has gone to central schemes that hon. Members have already mentioned, and to rural forces. It is, of course, welcome that £30 million has been made available under the rural policing fund, and £65 million under Airwave for 2002–03. That is all well and good, but police forces have to bid for those funds, and there is no guarantee that they will receive them.
This settlement does not guarantee the protection of the present spending commitments of the North Wales force. There is a real danger here, because 80 per cent. of the police budget goes on people, and if North Wales police are unsuccessful with their bids, there is a big possibility that they will be forced to downsize, leading to job losses. Overall—not just in the police strand—north Wales has received a 2.3 per cent. increase from the Home Office, of which 2 per cent. will go on pensions. The rest, apparently, will be expected to form the revenue budget for this year.
Of course, not all police funding for Wales comes from the Home Office; 22 per cent. comes from council tax receipts, and 32 per cent. from the National Assembly, from non-domestic rates receipts. The Assembly has given the police authority an increase of 4 per cent. this year, because that is what was expected from the Home Office. The Assembly has pledged to stick to that figure, even though the Home Office has made an increase of only 2.3 per cent. That will, therefore, leave a considerable shortfall. North Wales police need a 5.9 per cent. increase just to stand still. With the settlements from the Home Office and the Assembly, they will receive a 3.5 per cent. increase, so it will fall to local council tax payers to bear the burden of the shortfall. This is made worse because the National Assembly has said that it will cap any increase if it thinks it necessary to do so.
336 The university of Bangor recently conducted a survey of 500 people. Sixty-six per cent. said that there were too few officers in the area; 64 per cent. said that North Wales police were delivering value for money; and 75 per cent. agreed that they were prepared to pay more council tax to have more police. The local authorities in north Wales find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they substantially raise the precept to ensure access to the crime fighting fund, they will be capped by the National Assembly, so they are in real difficulty at the moment.
South Wales police—and other police forces in Wales—are relatively happy with their settlement, but they echo what North Wales police have said about inflationary costs. Furthermore, much of the money that the Treasury has given to the Home Office will be held centrally. Although some of the central schemes are very good, they will have to be part of the bidding process. According to the crime and police figures, there were 6,592 officers in Wales in 1997. By 2000, there had been an increase of roughly 200. The manpower figures seem to be improving slowly but surely.
I am acutely aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, but I am the only Welsh Member in the debate. I shall come to a close fairly swiftly, to be fair to other colleagues. Welsh police forces are doing a splendid job; their detection rate of 41 per cent. is better than the English average of 24 per cent. In the Dyfed-Powys area, for example, the rate is 63 per cent., and in Gwent it is 57 per cent. Those areas are the best by a long shot.
On Tuesday this week, there was a debate in the National Assembly for Wales on devolving all these matters to the Assembly, so that it could be on a par with the Scottish Parliament. Such a move is overdue, and the funding problems—the perennial banging on doors and desks—would come to an end if the matter were dealt with centrally in Cardiff. I do not often quote the Labour First Minister of the Assembly with any degree of confidence, but he has said that that is the "next natural step."
Interestingly, several senior police officers in Wales openly support such a move. At this late stage, I must declare an interest. My brother is a serving police inspector in the North Wales police force—not that my speech is likely to affect his life very much! If, as the Government say, this settlement and the previous ones were so fantastic, I doubt that senior police officers would be showing support for devolution of this power.
§ Patrick Mercer (Newark)
I shall try not to iterate the points that have been so much better made by a number of other hon. Members, and I shall confine myself entirely to Nottinghamshire. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and to the Minister for teeing me up—being my warm-up act, if you like—on Nottinghamshire, whose constabulary, it has rightly been pointed out, has urban proportions of crime but shire funding and shire manning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to the now infamous Tony Martin case. That is a style of crime that my constituency—which covers Newark and Retford—mercifully sees only occasionally. The two boys in the case—one was killed, the other wounded—came from the Hawtonville estate in Newark. Crime that ends in a fatality is mercifully rare in 337 my neck of the woods. Much more typical are the comments that I get two or three times a week from the likes of James Clark from Hawtonville, who told me that he is pestered all the time by mobs of youths, or from the residents of the parish of East Drayton whom I met last week, who told me that they do not see a police car for months on end. Also typical are the comments of the people of Retford, who told me that when there was a slight traffic accident in the town, the police switchboard was completely blocked.
I find myself acting as an apologist for the police, not because of their conduct—which I universally admire—hut because of the funding issue, to which we must return each and every time. Stephen Green, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, has put out a press release today, in which he describes the challenges that he faces. I have known him for 25 years—we were at Sandhurst together—and he is very open in his comments to me. It is clear to him that his force has to cope with the same level of recorded crime as Merseyside, although it is funded and manned only at the level of a shire force.
To refer back to a point that the Minister made earlier, the chief constable can deal with crime in Nottingham—just. Perhaps, at a pinch, he can deal with crime in places such as Mansfield. But he cannot deal with conurbation crime while also dealing with the market towns of Newark and Retford, and with the many villages in between. He cannot do both tasks with the men and women at his disposal. He must identify the main effort, and he does so—rightly, in my opinion—where the serious crimes occur.
In Newark and Retford, we largely face petty crimes. With the A1 running through the constituency, we have a lot of speeding and motor-related crime. Yet, suddenly, Newark has had five armed robberies in as many weeks, and people are beginning to run scared in an area that should be a sleepy hollow, but which is rapidly turning into a bit of a hot spot.
I am grateful to the Government—I shall try not to be churlish, as there have been comments on that from Labour Members—for the police numbers that the chief constable deploys today. He says that he will have 177 extra officers on the beat in the next year. That is great. Eighty-nine of them, however, will have to be found from within his own resources. That means that he will be taking people out of desk jobs and putting them back on the beat, so far as he can. I understand how difficult that will be in such an institution.
There will be 52 new recruits—rookies—coming in, and it will take some time for them to become effective. In addition, 36 experienced hands may be taken from the Thames Valley force and lured away to Nottinghamshire. Who can blame them? One would hope that life would be much better in the quieter parts of rural Nottinghamshire, so long as there are enough people to keep a lid on the rapidly changing situation.
The funding, however, is a completely different issue. I have already asked the Prime Minister why £3.3 million is being added to Nottinghamshire's funds in the next financial year. That is a 2.5 per cent. increase in cash terms, but no increase whatever in real terms. Once the costs of police pensions, equipment, recruitment and the like have been added, Nottinghamshire police face a real-terms funding decrease.
338 The chief constable, Stephen Green, told me that he will make up for that decrease in funding and will fund the new officers—I repeat that I am grateful for them—by adding to the council tax precept in constituencies such as mine. Newark and Retford face an increase of over 20 per cent. in the council tax precept, yet given the increase in crime in Nottingham, I suspect that we shall see very few extra officers. We have been promised a new police station. We do not really want a new police station, because that neither deters nor detects; it is merely there to represent power. We need officers on the beat.
My final point to the Minister is this: 60 per cent. of my postbag revolves around law and order issues in my constituency. Police funding in Nottinghamshire has caused my constituents to begin to resent the police. The police find it almost impossible to recruit special constables—the no-cost option for local policing—and more and more people blame the police officers, rather than the funding and resourcing, for the way in which crime is being tackled.
As I said earlier, I try to redress that by explaining to my constituents that Nottinghamshire constabulary, particularly Newark and Retford police, do a fine job. However, if the Minister continues to underfund forces such as Nottinghamshire, which have extremely difficult decisions to make, he will continue to set the police against the population.
§ Mr. David Cameron (Witney)
I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I shall shorten my remarks and concentrate purely on the position in the Thames valley, as my constituency is in that police area.
Funding for the Thames Valley force is being increased by just 2.6 per cent. That is one of the lowest increases in the country, but I suppose we should be grateful that it is an increase at all. I want to set that figure against the particular situation that we face. We heard a powerful speech from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), who told us how he had been bashed over the head by a policeman when he was on the Grunwick picket line. It seems to have done little harm to his thinking, because he got the point absolutely right: a cold look at the figures shows that the Thames Valley is hard done by.
Figures on the Home Office website show that there are, on average, 183.9 constables per 100,000 of the population. The Thames Valley force has the third lowest number in the country—just 135 constables per 100,000 of the population. I should be grateful if the Minister would explain the reason for that when he winds up the debate. It is certainly not because of the crime rate in the Thames valley, where the number of offences per 100,000 of the population is 8,883. That is much higher than the national average and higher than the average for the south-east or the south-west.
The position seems to have worsened. The figures for police strength show that in the 12 months to September 2001, police numbers fell by 1.1 per cent. in the Thames valley, whereas they are increasing in other areas. The Minister said that he was turning the tide; in the Thames valley, the tide seems to be ebbing rather than flowing. The problem is not helped by the fact that last year Thames Valley police recruited an extra 50 special constables but lost 114 through wastage.
339 Part of the problem is revealed when we look at the situation on the ground, rather than at the figures in the blue book. Oxfordshire in the Thames valley has some of the highest house prices and the highest cost of living in the United Kingdom—perhaps that is why some of our officers find their way on the road to Nottingham. The Thames Valley police area abuts the Metropolitan police area. As the hon. Member for Reading, West and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, Met officers receive a cost-of-living allowance totalling some £6,000 a year, whereas the maximum available to Thames Valley officers is just £2,000.
House prices in Oxfordshire are close to the average for Greater London and much higher than in many London boroughs. Figures from the Library show that in 2001 the average price of a house in Oxfordshire was £180,000, compared with £94,000 in Barking—to choose one London borough at random. Is it any wonder that officers are leaving to go to the Met for more money, or to go to the south-west or the north for lower living costs? The Government are going in the wrong direction by not addressing the problem of police numbers in the Thames Valley force.
On Friday night, I went on the beat with the police in Witney. It brought home to me the fact that, whatever money they get next year, we must ensure that it addresses the real problems that they face. An officer took me through a common assault case with which he had been dealing. The paperwork, which I have in my hand, consists of 18 sheets of paper on which the defendant's name had to be written over and again. Even at a cursory glance, many of the forms appear to be duplicated.
When we went out on the beat, the officer showed me the radios, which are truly local: if a problem arises in Oxford or Banbury, police officers cannot radio other officers in Witney or talk to their base because the radio waves are clocked. If somebody is arrested, there are not enough custody sergeants—I assume that some of them have gone to Nottingham—so the cells in Witney police station are often shut.
Thus the problem is a lack of officers—that problem is getting worse—and not enough specials to support those officers; poor local communications for making arrests; and far too much paperwork when an arrest is made. If an arrest is made, the suspect must be taken all the way to Banbury when the cells in Witney are shut.
It is a sorry tale and a poor way to treat public servants who do a magnificent job. They deserve more than they are getting at the moment.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
I am a Member of a Metropolitan police family, so not surprisingly I rise to speak in support of them and their need for increased manpower. I would suggest targets far in excess of the modest ones that the Government have set.
When Gilbert and Sullivan said that a policeman's lot is not a happy one, they were right and they are still right. At a time of increased pressure from the rise in certain types of crime, particularly drug-related violent crime, robberies and vandalism, the Metropolitan police are 600 men down on their 1997 figure.
The public perception is that criminals are getting away with it and that there is no point in reporting crime. Nobody knows the real crime levels because of 340 that unreported element, but the public perception is universally that we need more policemen. In London, one is five times more likely to become a victim of crime than somebody who lives in New York.
Morale is pivotal to recruitment and retention. The recent recruitment through training centres is extremely welcome, but we must also retain experienced officers. The proposal to offer a £1,000 incentive to delay the retirement of experienced officers is welcome. It is also a very good deal for the police because that £1,000 will be repaid many times over by the unpaid pension payments. The high level of early retirement on health grounds is an indication of poor morale within the police force.
§ Mr. Denham
If the hon. Lady believes that that is an indication of poor morale in the police service, does she agree that police morale was much worse five years ago, when the level of ill health retirement was much higher?
§ Angela Watkinson
That is not my experience, and it is not what the people I have spoken to tell me.
Will the Minister clarify a response that I received to a written question about the Metropolitan police training schools? I understand that there is now an almost 100 per cent. pass rate. Indeed, that is necessary if the targets on police resources are to be met. Will he compare that with the 1960s, when there was an almost 50 per cent. pass rate? I hope that the improved figures are due to a higher standard of recruit and not a lowering of entry requirements.
The London borough of Havering is a low crime area by London standards. It has nine fewer officers than in 1997, and the overall crime rate has increased by 23.7 per cent. The council tax is rocketing, and the Mayor of London has levied a precept of an additional 35 per cent. He claims that the extra money is required to fund the 1,050 additional police constables needed in the metropolitan area, but only £17 million of the £166 million raised will be used for that purpose. The lion's share of the funding for those 1,050 will come from the crime fighting fund. We can only speculate on what Mayor Livingstone intends to use the rest of that money for.
Havering, as an outer-London borough, often has to provide additional support for security in the capital, and it needs extra police for that, because it often leaves Havering's numbers depleted. In the borough, Romford has the highest concentration of night-time leisure and entertainment centres and nightclubs outside the west end of London, and 13,000 people converge on those nightclubs every night. That puts enormous strain on Havering police, who do a good job but are stretched to the limit. The other parts of the borough are often left virtually unpoliced because of the demands of the nightclubs in Romford.
I have lost count of the number of constituents who have said to me that they want visible policing. They want to see police on the beat. I know that that is not the modern method of policing, and it is considered to be ineffective and inefficient, but that is what the general public want. An enormous increase in manpower would be needed to enable Havering police to beat police the entire borough with three shifts. Modest increases are not enough. If we are to satisfy public demand for beat policing, we need huge increases in manpower. That is 341 what the public want. What the police want is the backing of senior officers, the Government and the Crown Prosecution Service.
§ Mr. Paice
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make a few comments in response to the debate. I know that the Minister wants to respond more fully, and I do not intend to take long.
Few hon. Members, other than one or two Government lackeys, have been entirely satisfied with the totality of the police grant. In particular, many hon. Members—not just Conservative Members, but Liberal Democrat and Labour Members—have expressed concern about the trend towards centralisation, to which I referred in my speech. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) took that view, followed by, among others, the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker) and for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley).
The Minister rather disingenuously suggested in an intervention on the hon. Member for Lewes that by expressing concern we were against any form of centralised funds. Of course some centralised funds will be required, such as that for the DNA database. The concern that I and others have expressed is about the huge increase in centralised funds year on year.
The rural fund is only £30 million, which is small as a proportion. One can make a case for it being centralised at the moment until the Government change the distribution formula, but there is no justification for the crime fighting fund being centralised. There is no reason why that could not have been disbursed to authorities for their own purposes. The only defence of centralisation came from the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston). I accept his argument about local accountability, but if he wants to defend the Government, I suggest he read clause 7 of the Police Reform Bill, which shows just how far they want to go in controlling what the police do, and it is quite frightening to most people.
A number of Members raised the issue of wastage. The latest figures show that wastage rose by some 5 per cent. in the year to September. That is not a large figure, but it is of some concern. If we strip out the retirements, deaths, transfers and dismissals, we discover that straightforward resignations rose by 18 per cent. in that year. That shows the widespread loss of morale in the police service. Police officers do not like the way that they are being treated.
Many hon. Members have referred to the Thames valley and the cost of living allowance. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has come back into the Chamber. I maintain my view that getting rid of the housing allowance was the right way forward. If there is a problem—I am happy to accept her word and those of other hon. Members—I suggest that it can be dealt with through the cost of living allowance.
§ Mr. Paice
I shall not give way, if the hon. Lady does not mind. I want to give the Minister time to respond.
342 Addressing the cost of living allowance is exactly the course of action suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and others. My hon. Friends the Members for South Cambridgeshire, for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) referred to the importance of visible policing. There is no doubt that that has suffered seriously during the past few years. Police numbers fell dramatically in the Government's first three years in office. Of course we welcome the fact that we are now back to where we were—73 above to be precise—and in response to the accusation that I am being churlish, I welcome the extra police officers in Cambridgeshire. However, we have only got back to where we were, and have not made significant progress.
Several of my hon. Friends referred to the special constabulary. Under the Government, there has been a cataclysmic decline in the number of specials of some 40 per cent. It would be wholly wrong to lay the blame for that entirely at the Government's door. People's lifestyles have changed and they may be less willing to undertake voluntary work. However, a decline of 40 per cent. cannot be completely attributed to a gradual change in people's lifestyles in the past few years. I am disappointed that in the White Paper, which has raised its head several times in the debate, the Government did not set out any strong proposals substantially to revitalise the specials, other than making nice warm noises about the need to increase the special constabulary.
The principal issue remains that of the shift towards the council tax, and it was raised by a number of hon. Members. I wish the Minister would be straightforward with the House and say whether it is the Government's intention to shift the bulk of the cost of policing towards the council tax payer. That is what is happening. I gave figures, which hon. Members supported with figures from their own constabularies. It looks as though many authorities will be raising their council tax precept by 20 or 30 per cent. just to stand still. Others may decide not to raise it by that amount, and to face up to having to make cuts.
I come back to the Government's targets for the number of police officers. If some forces are not able to access the crime fighting fund this year because they have had to cut their recruitment and do not meet the gateway criteria, does the Minister realistically expect to meet his target of 130,000 officers by next year? If he does, will he tell the House what he expects the rise in council tax precepts to be on average for police authorities across the country? He cannot have it both ways: either council taxes will have to rise dramatically or he will not get the police officers he and all of us want by this time next year.
§ Mr. Denham
With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply. I thank the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for leaving me 10 minutes or so. I hope to deal with the main themes of the debate in that time, although I shall not be able to respond in detail to each point. I am sure that hon. Members will understand.
This has, in general, been a helpful debate, although inevitably there has been a degree of special pleading and some presentation of creatively argued cases from police authority treasurers determined to show the situation in the worst possible light.
343 A number of speakers from, I think, both sides of the House drew a contrast between the average grant increase of 2.8 per cent. and the overall spending increase of 6.1 per cent. That, as a number of other speakers made clear, is not the point. The missing amount has not been whipped away for nefarious central purposes. A substantial extra amount, over and above the grant increase, will be spent by police forces in local areas on delivering policing to communities. The crime fighting fund, the rural policing fund and the capital fund—which, as I have said, is being increased by more than 30 per cent.—will be spent in local police force areas. That alone amounts to an increase of 4.34 per cent. in England and Wales.
§ Mr. Denham
May I make a little progress? I gave way to every intervention earlier, and I have not much time. I will give way later if I can.
Thames Valley police have featured many times today. If we take account of the increases in the crime fighting fund, the rural policing fund and capital, they are receiving 5.18 per cent. When set against an average increase of 6.1 per cent. across the country, that is not at all bad. There is a good case for some of the central funds and central initiatives to which some Members have objected.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) rightly said that the public wanted more police, and wanted to see more police on the beat. I have chided the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire for the decline in police numbers set in train by the last Government in 1993, and he has chided me for the fact that it took us a couple of years to sort out the economy and enable the numbers to start rising again. The fact is, however, that without a mechanism like the crime fighting fund, which ring-fenced resources for the recruitment and salaries of additional officers, the numbers would not be going up now.
If Ministers are to be accountable for the overall number of police officers, I shall want to ensure—as will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—that there is a mechanism to translate the money we are investing into the officers that the hon. Lady and my hon. Friends want to see patrolling the streets, and providing intelligence-led policing in communities.
§ Mr. Denham
I certainly believe that if we had not ring-fenced it, we would not have seen such a rapid increase in the number of police officers. I will defend that judgment, although it required a degree of central direction. As we would be held to account if the public did not benefit from seeing us head for record police numbers this spring and 130,000 officers next spring, I think we have a right to take the measures that are necessary to ensure that that happens.
The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) spoke of going out with the police and observing that they could not communicate properly because their radios did not work. That is the reason for the Airwave initiative. Our 344 police service has a history of failure to implement coherent approaches to information technology and the development of communications technologies because of a series of 43 separate, unco-ordinated decisions made by 43 separate police forces in 43 separate police authorities.
It is all very well defending, as I will, the key role of police authorities in the tripartite partnership, but if the police service in England and Wales is undermined by the inability of forces to talk to each other—if, to preserve their own safety, they cannot communicate in the event of a motorway crash on the border of two counties, or an armed incident, because their radios do not work—there must be a central national initiative, and that is what Airwave is all about. Similarly, there is no point in having a database enabling scene-of-crime samples to be checked against DNA records if half the country's police forces cannot take advantage of it.
We are talking not about some overbearing centralisation, but about an arrangement that is supported by the vast majority of chief constables and others who recognise that, while we take tremendous pride in the identity of local and community policing and policing by consent, tackling modern criminality involves issues that must be dealt with on a coherent national basis. I believe that we have the balance right in the settlement, and in the overall approach set out in a police Bill for whose Second Reading we have heard some rehearsals today.
Most Members also mentioned recruitment and retention in the south-east. Let me repeat some of what I said earlier. We realise that that is important, which is why—unlike the last Government, who abolished the housing allowance—we have presented proposals for low-cost home ownership and low-cost loan schemes. As we said in our White Paper, we want to establish a link with the NHS low-cost housing co-ordinator. I think there is scope for more partnership schemes involving housing associations and others.
As well as introducing regional allowances, we want to address such important issues. We must, however, ensure that we are doing the right things in the most effective way. We need a much better understanding of why some forces in the south-east have a much lower wastage rate than others, and why some have a much more effective recruitment rate. We must see what is good, and build on the best. I do not rule out any approach beyond that, but before saying "Here is an obvious simple solution" let us do what we are doing now. Let us work with the forces that are doing extremely well and also with those that appear to have a problem, and see what we can do.
I do not understand the reasons for this, but 60 per cent. of Thames Valley recruits come from outside the Thames valley area. The force can attract recruits, but there is a built-in tendency for people to return to their home areas. It would be interesting to know why such a high proportion are from outside; home-grown recruits would be less likely to drift away. We are determined to tackle all the issues, but I want to do that on the basis of an understanding of what is really going on.
The last Conservative Administration set in train a decline in the number of police officers that we have had to reverse. Crime doubled under that regime. The Conservatives introduced huge delays in youth courts, preventing young offenders from being brought to justice quickly. The level of resources that we are discussing now was undreamt of under that Government.
345 We have presided over a period in which crime has fallen. According to the British crime survey, last year's fall was the biggest in the survey's history, and the chance of being a victim of crime was the lowest since it began in 1981. I am in no way complacent, however. Crime levels are still too high, and there are serious problems—such as street robbery, which has been mentioned a number of times—that we are determined to tackle. Although I am pleased with what we have achieved so far, I realise that there is a great deal more to do.
Police forces and officers do a tremendous job, which is why we were happy to negotiate heads of agreement with the Police Federation that would make the vast majority of officers better off, benefiting from a fairer pay system. They deserve and will receive our support. We will reform the police service to free its time. Former chief inspector Sir David O'Dowd is leading the battle against red tape and bureaucracy. We need to give more support to police officers by investing in capital. That is why part of the capital we have announced this week will be spent on improving working conditions for police officers and visiting conditions for the public in police stations.
We want to free officers' time so they can be out in the community—not wandering the streets, but patrolling in an intelligent, targeted way to tackle antisocial behaviour and persistent offenders. We are determined to support the police better in the job that they do so well for us already. The resources that we have discussed today will enable them to do just that.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2002–03 (HC533), which was laid before this House on 28th January, be approved.