HC Deb 24 February 2003 vol 400 cc93-104

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

7.59 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

There are few, if any, subjects more important to my constituents and the residents of Hertfordshire, and many other parts of the country, than the maintenance of law and order. I am pleased to have this opportunity to express what I perceive to be my constituents' serious and growing concern on the issue, which is also felt in many other parts of Hertfordshire.

I wish to make it clear that in my remarks I make no criticism of the Hertfordshire police force or the Hertfordshire police authority. They do a good job in often difficult circumstances and I pay tribute to the way in which senior officers are prepared to respond to the concerns of the community. I recognise the strenuous efforts that they have made to tackle the difficult problem of recruitment and retention of police officers in Hertfordshire, and I pay tribute to the dedication of individual police officers of all ranks in the area. I make no criticism of the Hertfordshire force: indeed, I look for more support for it. I am sure that the force and my constituents would welcome such support.

According to the most recent figures supplied to me in a written answer on 12 February, the total crime figure for Hertfordshire is rising. Total crime has risen in the two years for which like-for-like comparisons can be made, after taking into account boundary changes and revised counting rules. There have been particularly worrying increases in offences of robbery and burglary, the second of which I still regard as a serious offence, whatever others may feel.

While crime has gone up in Hertfordshire, the thin blue line has been stretched thinner. Ministers seem to be unaware of the true picture of the number of police in Hertfordshire. In the recent debate on police funding, the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, who will reply to this debate, told us that Hertfordshire Members should acknowledge that in March 1997 there w ere 1,759 police officers in Hertfordshire, whereas in March last year there were 1,825—so the policies introduced by the Government have led to an increase in the number of police officers in Hertfordshire."—[Official Report, 5 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 308.]

That statement unfortunately overlooks the fact that in April 2000 the area served by the Hertfordshire constabulary grew by a fifth when areas formerly policed by the Metropolitan force, including the whole of my Hertsmere constituency and other places, were added to Hertfordshire. Since then, the picture for police numbers in Hertfordshire in general, and for Hertsmere in particular, has not been as rosy as Ministers apparently believe, although I stress that that is no fault of the Hertfordshire force.

According to another parliamentary answer that I received on 5 February, the police strength of the Hertfordshire force stood at 1,954 on 31 January 2001. According to that same answer, the figure had gone down to 1,825 by March 2002. That was the figure given by the Minister in the debate to which I referred earlier, and was lower than that for a year earlier. Since then, there has been some recovery. According to figures supplied by the Hertfordshire police force, police strength stood at 1,946 at the end of last month. Although that is an improvement on the figure given by the Minister, it is still lower than the figure two years ago and must also be set against the substantially increased responsibilities of the Hertfordshire force.

As I pointed out, the position for Hertsmere appears to be starker still. The figures supplied by the Hertfordshire force show that in Hertsmere the thin blue line is being stretched very thin indeed. Two years ago, Hertsmere was policed by 36 officers from the Hertfordshire force and 97 officers on secondment from the Metropolitan force while the transfer was taking effect. Two years ago, Hertsmere was policed by a total of 133 officers. One year ago, the total number of officers serving Hertsmere was 116. Today, I am told that the total number of officers is 108—all from the Hertfordshire force—down from 133, which is a reduction of almost 20 per cent.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the overall loss. Is he aware that in Bishop's Stortford in my constituency there is a parallel problem? Many officers have been drawn across to serve the new area and the result, on which he may want to comment, is that in Bishop's Stortford—a town of 31,000 people—the average shift on a Friday evening can be as few as seven officers.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sure that his constituents in Bishop's Stortford will be rightly concerned about that problem. The position that he describes is not the fault of the Hertfordshire force, which has done its best to spread officers throughout the whole area. However, the increased responsibilities for the force, of which the Minister seems unaware, have meant that officers have been taken from other parts of the county in order to police the new areas, such as Hertsmere, that have come under Hertfordshire.

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. In fact, there are plenty of police officers in Hertfordshire—we are knee-deep in them. The problem is that they go to work in London because they get thousands of pounds more, as well as support for travel and other things, so my constituency, like those of my hon. Friends in Hertfordshire, is short of policemen. Until the Government address that problem we shall not have enough officers. Is my hon. Friend aware that in a recent survey conducted in my constituency crime was the No. 1 concern?

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend is right. The situation is similar in my constituency. Many police officers live in Hertsmere, but many of them commute to London to serve in the Metropolitan force.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the north-eastern corner of the county the situation is the same? The force is spread very thin indeed. In small rural communities such as Buntingford and Royston, there is genuine concern that there is no longer the visible police presence that is needed to maintain law and order.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend's constituents and mine may be suffering from the same problem—a rising tide of antisocial behaviour. They want to see more officers on the streets. They know that the Hertfordshire force is doing its best to provide those officers, but that it suffers from funding constraints and the relativity problem in respect of London. They have problems in recruiting and retaining enough officers. I shall deal with that important point later.

I am sure that my hon. Friends share my concern and that of other people in Hertfordshire, including my local authority, about the settlement under the Government's new funding arrangements. The problems that we have been describing are hardly likely to be solved by the new arrangements.

There have been questions about the communications between the Hertfordshire police authority and the Government. The Minister may be able to clear up some of the issues this evening. However, the police authority leaves me in no doubt as to the strength of its concern about the funding settlement. On 6 December, the chairman of the police authority and the chief constable wrote to me about the present settlement. They said: We are sure … that you will share our extreme disappointment and concern at the funding levels announced yesterday … it is transparent that Hertfordshire will need to find at least £5 million from Council Tax just to maintain the current level of policing services. On 20 December the same two gentlemen wrote to me again to confirm the analysis of a very difficult funding situation", and to point out that council tax payers faced big increases. Since then, we have discovered that Hertfordshire council tax payers face an increase of 21 per cent. in the council tax element for policing simply in order to deliver the same standard of service. They are being asked to pay more to uphold the forces of law and order in Hertfordshire. At the same time, they are suffering from the problems that I have described.

On 23 January, the leaders of all three parties in Hertsmere borough council wrote to the Home Secretary to express their concerns about the constraints on Hertfordshire police. They acknowledged the work of the Hertfordshire constabulary in seeking to provide an effective service with a limited number of men. I will quote their letter to the Minister to show the Hertsmere point of view on policing and police resources. It said that they wanted to voice the strength of our feelings regarding the inadequate level of policing in our Borough. Our residents tell us that crime and disorder is a priority issue for them. Sadly, there is a widespread lack of confidence in the ability of the police to respond speedily to 999 calls or to provide a sufficient presence on the streets to deter crime and anti-social behaviour. Those council group leaders, from the three political parties, are certainly in touch with local opinion in Hertsmere; and it sounds as if they are in touch with local opinion in the rest of Hertfordshire. They are right. Local residents are concerned about crime and a rising tide of antisocial behaviour.

As the Member of Parliament for Hertsmere, I am besieged by the complaints of constituents in different communities in the constituency. For example, two weeks ago I attended a meeting of concerned residents in Farriers way in Boreham Wood, who were addressing the problems of antisocial behaviour caused by youths, as well as responding to a murder inquiry that arose out of the death of a local man in tragic and appalling circumstances. I pay tribute to the courageous and public-spirited way in which local councillors and residents are facing up to such issues in Boreham Wood.

Three weeks ago, I attended a meeting at a synagogue in Bushy. The meeting was called as result of an incident in Bushy Heath on a Friday night not long before, when a small group of boys who were making their way home from Friday evening prayers were set upon by a much larger group of youths and abused in a very unpleasant way. That incident seems to be part of a pattern of antisocial behaviour in Bushy Heath, with youths roaming around and abusing shopkeepers and members of the public. On one occasion, the local vicar was prompted to call for police assistance after abuse was hurled at his parishioners as they made their way into church.

Similar stories of antisocial behaviour were ventilated at another public meeting that I attended in a different part of Bushy—the Hertford road area. Again I pay tribute to the members of the public and the councillors of all parties who are trying to tackle such problems. Likewise, in Potters Bar, I have been contacted by members of the public who are worried by crime and antisocial behaviour in different parts of the town. Among other things, they are worried by recent thefts and robberies from shops in the town. I have also met one group of residents who were worried by the prevalence of robberies of individuals and their families in their own homes. I believe that "aggravated burglary" is the correct term. It is a despicable crime when somebody's home is invaded by desperate men and the householder and his family are set upon and their property stolen. It is a serious offence that should be distinguished from the generality of burglaries. It has left a group of my constituents living in some fear.

My constituents as a whole are deeply concerned by what they perceive to be a serious and growing problem. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge their well-founded concerns and respond to them. One way in which the Government could begin to respond—and my hon. Friends have anticipated this point in their interventions—would be by reconsidering the pay and differentials that make it much easier for the Metropolitan police to recruit than it is for the Hertfordshire force. That point is made by the Hertsmere group leaders in the letter to which I have already referred. I accept that the Government have partly addressed the issue with the introduction two years ago of a new allowance of £2,000 for forces in the south-east. However, the fact remains that Metropolitan police officers still receive an additional £4,000, as well as generous travel concessions. The difference between the forces is significant and it is widely believed to disadvantage Hertfordshire. As the group leaders say in their letter to the Minister: Until something is done to address the marked pay inequality between the two forces, it seems likely that there will always be a high percentage of vacancies in our local force. We would therefore urge you to address this issue as a priority and thus demonstrate your commitment to community safety.

Mr. Page

I apologise for having to leave: I have to address a meeting in a few short moments over in Parliament street. Will my hon. Friend consider the role of the specials? They put in a great number of hours in Hertfordshire. I believe that it is policing on the cheap. but it is a good recruiting source for the police force. Perhaps the Minister, when he responds to my hon. Friend, will tell us what he intends to do to encourage more people to become specials. There are many already in Hertfordshire, but we could encourage more volunteers, and therefore get a cadre from which to strengthen the numbers in our police force.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I am sure that the Minister will want to address it. We would all, on behalf of our constituents, want the Government to take a constructive approach towards special constables, who undoubtedly have an important role.

There is a problem with full-time police officers. I have already explained Hertfordshire's disadvantages when it comes to recruiting officers, but the same issues of pay and conditions create problems in retaining those officers. Hertfordshire constabulary has written to me about a growing concern at the rising number of experienced officers who are leaving the Constabulary—either for the Metropolitan Police Service who are allowed to pay higher allowances or to parts of the country where the cost of housing is cheaper. The letter continues: The continued loss of experienced staff is debilitating and compromises our ability to provide the services we want our public to receive".

Although many excellent people are joining the police force, it is a fact that the proportion of officers who are probationary staff is increasing. That may be a result of the loss of those experienced officers.

The Hertfordshire force faces serious problems. I believe that the police authority and the constabulary are facing up to those problems, but they need more help than they are receiving at the moment if they are to be successful. They need more support, and I look to the Minister for a constructive response to the problems of law and order that the constabulary faces.

We know that the inner cities and the great metropolitan areas have problems with law and order, but communities in Hertfordshire and other shire counties have problems as well. In many cases, those problems are getting worse. Leave those problems to fester and our constituents will pay a heavy price. We need the Minister to acknowledge the depth of concern in those communities and to make at least a start in addressing them.

8.17 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

I will say a few words, as we have time available. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. It could not be more timely, as the effects of the settlement from the Government become known.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) mentioned the specials. On Saturday, I was in Royston with the specials, trying to advertise the work that they do as part of "specials week". I pay tribute to the eight officers in Royston and district who do such a fantastic job in supporting the regular officers. They enable operations such as the bike marking that I saw on Saturday, and they allow patrols on the streets of Royston, Baldock and Letchworth to take place. Without the specials, it would be a sorry picture. They help to provide a much more visible police presence than would be possible if we were to rely solely on the regular officers.

In the paper this week, I noticed that the leader of the Labour group on North Hertfordshire district council Councillor David Kearns—was outlining his concerns about antisocial behaviour in the Grange estate in Letchworth. Elsewhere in the constituency—in Royston and Baldock—concerns are regularly expressed to me about antisocial behaviour. Recently, in Buntingford, the deputy manager of the Co-op was assaulted when he refused to serve alcohol to youngsters. His mother attended my surgery on Friday to express how worried she was that a small market town such as Buntingford suffered from such incidents. She expressed concerns about law and order and the behaviour of young people, and made the point that there is not an adequate police presence in our area.

I have the highest regard for our local constabulary. I have spoken to Chief Superintendent Andy Wright about the incident over the new year in which Mr. Llewellyn was assaulted. The chief superintendent is doing his best, with extra patrols, to try to reinforce the sense of public safety and order in Buntingford. However, such problems are not new: during the past four or five years. I have received regular complaints about the lack of officers in that rural division of Hertfordshire. It is not good enough that we have such vacancy levels, which are not caused by a lack of recruitment; retention is the real problem in Hertfordshire.

I have made the point to Ministers over and again that, because of the railway or the good transport links that we have with London, officers live in Hertfordshire and work for the Metropolitan police in London. Many officers go over the border into the Met area because of the incentive to do so—the extra £6,000 makes such a difference.

I should also like to point out that rural areas are often discounted. It is often said that they are very safe and that the area that I am talking about is the safest part of one of the safest counties, but when burglaries occur in remote rural areas, the feeling of vulnerability is extreme for those who live there. They are a long way from help; it is not like the situation in a town, which is bad enough. Burglary is a very serious invasion of privacy, but it is really very worrying in rural areas.

Mr. Prisk

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be familiar with the village of Hunsden, which is further south in east Hertfordshire, and those who live there share that sense of vulnerability. Every week for the past six months, the parish council has reported to me different incidents, some involving people coming from Harlow. That sense of vulnerability is underscored by the fact that the elderly often suffer the most.

Mr. Heald

It is particularly sad that elderly people, many of whom have been through the conflicts of the 20th century and survived, should now he worrying, in their 80s and 90s, about going out of the door early in the evening. The only way to tackle that is with a combination of the sort of targeted, intelligence-led policing that I am sure the Minister supports. Of course we need that, but we also need an adequate, visible police presence on the streets. The fact is that Hertfordshire is 200 special constables short. I did my bit to try to recruit a few more, but we could do with more. We have often been 200 regular officers short. Although figures are given for the police force's strength, we are always down on those figures because we lose officers at such a rate.

We in North-East Hertfordshire face another particularly rural problem: illegal hare coursing. Gangs of up 50 men have often come up to the area in the past to gamble on illegal hare coursing, which creates huge public order problems. Policing something like that takes a large number of officers. After a campaign in the early 1990s, it was possible to put much more police effort into tackling illegal hare coursing in the Royston and Buntingford area, and the problem pretty well subsided. However, in the past year or so, there have been about 90 incidents involving illegal hare coursing and it is becoming more of a problem.

Those policing illegal hare coursing need four-wheel drive vehicles, as well as a considerable number of officers skilled in dealing with what is a difficult public order problem. When working against a background where recruitment and retention is difficult, the officers coming through are still new and learning what they should do, and where resources are thinly stretched because there are not enough officers in the county and because the Government have provided a hopelessly inadequate settlement, it becomes difficult to deal with some of those peculiar rural problems, such as illegal hare coursing.

I should like to end my speech by saying how much I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere in raising this issue, by paying tribute to the work of the chief constable, Paul Acres, and the chairman of the police authority, Peter Holland, who is about to retire after many years excellent service in that role and by telling the Minister that it is sometimes necessary, even in a peaceable county like Hertfordshire, to have enough money to do the job properly, and we really did not get what we needed in the latest police settlement.

8.25 pm
The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on securing a debate, not for the first time, on crime and policing issues in his constituency and the other hon. Members who have spoken on taking the opportunity of slightly less pressure on parliamentary time than normal to contribute to the debate. Some very important issues have been raised, and I shall try to address as many of them as possible.

It is always important in such debates, without any suggestion of complacency, to put the overall crime picture into context. The best measure that we have of crime in this country comes from the British crime survey, which shows that overall levels of crime have fallen by some 27 per cent. since 1997, including significant falls in vehicle crime, burglary and so on. In fact, according to the BCS, the chance of being the victim of crime is at its lowest level since the survey began under the previous Government in the early 1980s.

Those figures are generally regarded as being more reliable because they do not require individuals to report the crime to the police or, indeed, for the police to have recorded it. Recorded crime figures need to be followed carefully—particularly at police force level, as the BCS has insufficient coverage to give force-by-force data—but we need to be a little cautious about drawing to much from the month-by-month or year-by-year recorded crime figures at force level, not least when forces have been introducing new crime recording standards.

To say all that is, yes, to undercut the idea that crime is running out of control across the country—there is no evidence that it is. There is rising public concern about certain types of crime, such as street robbery and antisocial behaviour, which the hon. Member for Hertsmere mentioned, and we have worked very hard to get on top of them. Having said all that and put things in context, of course we are committed to continuing our efforts to reduce crime, which must include Hertfordshire, Hertsmere and every other community.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Hertsmere paid tribute to the Hertfordshire constabulary, and he will have been pleased—as will the chief constable and the members of his force—when we published the police performance monitors for the first time last week. Although they do not cover everything, they give a rounded assessment of police performance. Hertfordshire was compared, as it should be, with the most similar police forces: Suffolk, Sussex, Thames Valley, Kent and Avon and Somerset, all of which contain a mixture of urban areas, deprived community problems and rural communities that may have both prosperous and deprived areas. Hertfordshire did very well in comparison with its most similar forces. It had higher levels of crime detection and offenders brought to justice and lower levels of crimes such as robbery, vehicle crime and burglary, as well as somewhat higher levels of citizen satisfaction with the police. I therefore think that it is worth building on what the hon. Gentleman said to congratulate Hertfordshire on what it has done. Some specific issues remain, however, with which we need to deal.

First, in relation to the overall picture on resources, the casual listener to the debate might have got the impression that the Government had set out to starve the police service in England and Wales of resources. The reality is that, in the past three years, including the new financial year, the overall funding increases for the police service have been 6.2 per cent., 7 per cent, and 10 per cent. The increase in cash terms in funding over the spending review period will be 16 per cent. That is why, across the country as whole, we have record numbers of police officers, and we have a target to reach 132,500 in 2004. There are particular issues in Hertfordshire, to which I shall refer, but that is clearly evidence that the investment that we have been making in the police service is making a direct difference in police numbers.

The hon. Gentleman is right that examining the pattern in Hertfordshire over recent years is made more complex by the fact that his constituency used to be covered by the Metropolitan police service and others, it was transferred into Hertfordshire, and a secondment took place of officers from the Metropolitan police to Hertfordshire, many of whom have now made their way back to the Met. I entirely accept that, but let me say two things. First, Hertfordshire has not been immune from the benefits of the increased Government investment in the police service over the past couple of years, in which numbers have been rising. Hertfordshire has a particularly impressive record on recruitment—I shall refer to retention in a moment. In the April-December period 2002, 223 officers were recruited, and the force plans to recruit another 60 officers in the January-March period this year. That would give recruitment figures for 2002–03, if achieved, of 283, compared with 183 officers recruited in 2001–02. That is a significant achievement by the Hertfordshire police force.

I understand that Hertsmere is now part of the central area basic command unit in Hertfordshire. On 31 March 2002, the basic command unit had 481 officers. That represents an increase of 61 in comparison with the number deployed on 1 July 2001 in the three divisions that now form the central BCU. The hon. Gentleman quoted figures that were possibly slightly more localised than those that I have just quoted. We can probably sort out the matter in correspondence afterwards—I do not have the figures that he quoted. My point, however, is that the number of officers available to serve his part of Hertfordshire has increased over that period.

Mr. Clappison

I am listening carefully to the Minister's points. I will have to examine figures for the central division, but the figures that I gave were for Hertsmere and were supplied to me by the Hertfordshire constabulary. The Minister referred a moment ago to rising police numbers in Hertfordshire as a whole. The figures that I quoted in debate came from a written answer that he gave to me, which showed that police strength had fallen in Hertfordshire from 1,954 on 31 January 2001 to 1,825 in March 2002. I gave some further figures showing that there had been a slight increase since then but, even taking account of the increase to which I referred, the figure is still lower than it was two years ago.

Mr. Denham

As the hon. Gentleman said—I do not want to mislead him on this matter—there has been an upturn in those numbers. I am happy to accept that because of the boundary changes, the secondment of officers, their return to the Metropolitan police and so on, the benefit of the overall increase in police numbers has come later in the day and is showing up much later in the figures than has been the case in other parts of the country, many of whose police forces can track increased numbers over a three-year period and have achieved record numbers within the past year or so.

Mr. Clappison

I was very careful in my remarks to take account of the changes in secondment. My figures were on a like-for-like basis since the transfer took place. On that basis, there are fewer police officers in Hertfordshire today than there were two years ago.

Mr. Denham

I do not think that we disagree about that. It is primarily the return of seconded police officers to the Metropolitan police service that gives Hertfordshire a lower base from which to start. Any increase in numbers now builds on that.

Mr. Heald

Of course, we receive regular updates from the chief constable and the chairman of the police authority. They say to us, "Yes, we've done much better on recruitment, but, sadly, it hasn't made any difference because we've lost so many officers on the retention side of the equation." That is the problem about which we are all very concerned.

Mr. Denham

Indeed, that is the problem to which I now wish to turn. The debate has covered the difficulties in retaining officers which Hertfordshire undoubtedly faces. Recruitment has been quite impressive, particularly for a force of that size.

The Met offers a higher salary. A few years ago, the situation was reversed. The Met was finding it extremely difficult to recruit and retain officers. It is important to sustain numbers in the capital, not least because one of the areas of growth in London is in the strength of the counter-terrorism service, which, as hon. Members know, the Met effectively provides to the country as a whole. The solution is not as simple as removing the differential; we have to tackle the problem from a number of different directions.

As hon. Members have acknowledged, there is an additional allowance for officers in the forces immediately outside London who are not in receipt of the housing allowance. Hertfordshire gets the higher of those allowances, which is £2,000. In my area of Hampshire, the allowance is £1,000. We already have 1,112 places on the starter home initiative in the south-east. We are discussing a number of options with forces just outside London, including Hertfordshire. Peter Holland, the chairman of the police authority, who was mentioned earlier, and Paul Acres, the chief constable, have taken part in meetings with me about that issue.

We are considering ways in which the Government can put their weight behind attempts to secure better transport deals, although we are advised by the forces that those need to be localised. We are looking to introduce special priority payments, which will be worth 1 per cent. of the pay bill this year, rising to 2 per cent, in a couple of years. Those will work with forces in two ways. First, they will make sure that there is no competitive bidding between London and the south-east forces, and secondly, they will try to achieve the maximum effect on retention. We are considering whether we can give greater assistance with housing, building on what we have done in the past. I hope that on at least one of those initiatives I will be able to make an announcement in the very near future that will be of benefit to forces in the south-east.

We are considering also whether we can make recruitment from the south-east to other parts of the country less attractive. It would be wrong to think that all movement is from outer London forces into the Metropolitan police service area. There is clearly some movement from the south-east to other parts of the country.

Mr. Prisk

May I impress upon the Minister the fact that many officers tell me that what concerns them is cash in hand? The remaining £4,000 gap between the Metropolitan force and the Hertfordshire force is of concern, and many officers in my constituency find that they are policing Metropolitan officers who live in the area when Hertfordshire officers cannot afford to do so. Police officers are looking for cash, and another £2,000 may close the gap without causing the problems in the Metropolitan force to which the Minister refers.

Mr. Denham

I always listen with interest to Conservative Members. I recall that when the Conservatives were in power, police numbers were falling and there were huge problems in the Met because most of the current allowances and the transport assistance did not exist, and nor did the current regional allowances. I should be interested to know whether the Conservatives are saying that they would simply pay extra allowances.

Even if money and total resources were not an issue, simply closing the differential, with the possible effect of moving the cliff edge further from London or creating a crisis in the Metropolitan police service, is not the best way to address the issue. However, one obviously understands why officers say what they do. We are tackling a range of pay, housing and other issues with the south-east forces to see how we can maximise the impact on retention, and I believe that we can make worthwhile moves this year.

I am grateful for the comments made by the hon. Members for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) and for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) about national specials weekend. I wrote to all right hon. and hon. Members about that, and I know that the hon. Gentleman took part in promoting that weekend, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward). I took part in a promotion for the specials in Hampshire. We can do much over the next couple of years to promote the special constabulary as a key component of the policing service and a complement to full-time professional police officers. Numbers have suffered in the past two or three years, ironically partly because of the rapid expansion of police service recruitment. A significant number of specials who joined as a precursor to taking up a full-time career in the police service have moved across. We need to rebuild those numbers.

On Hertfordshire's funding, I mentioned the headline level of police funding, which will increase by 6.2 per cent. going into the next financial year. The police grant is somewhat below that figure and Hertfordshire's share of the increase is 3 per cent., which is below the average of 4.3 per cent. We operate a funding formula that was developed under the last Government and from which we phased out the establishment figure. It is based largely on policing activity. In our review of funding formula, we did not introduce the option of a deprivation component, as Hertfordshire police authority urged us not to do. We have ensured that forces like Hertfordshire are protected by having a floor on the level of increase received by any particular authority. Importantly, the money received through the police grant is only part of the resources available to the police authority. In Hertfordshire's case, the police authority will receive up to £3.14 million next year from the crime fighting fund, which is over and above the 3 per cent. increase. That money goes directly on the costs of recruiting, paying and retaining police officers and translates into a direct level of service to the people of Hertfordshire.

The police authority will also receive £290,000 to help it move ahead with the implementation of the Airwave radio communication system. That is a significant investment in more modern and effective communications technology. Hertfordshire will receive just over £500,000 from the basic command unit fund, which will strengthen the ability of BCU commanders to work with local authorities on the implementation of crime reduction strategies. The force will also receive £1.74 million in capital funding. Those sums do not include additional funding for the DNA programme, the money made available for special priority payments or any money that Hertfordshire might get this coming year from the premises improvement fund, from which it received £1 million last year. It is important to stress that the grant to Hertfordshire is not just the money covered by the 3 per cent. increase in funding.

Mr. Prisk

Those sums are obviously welcome, but council tax payers know that they have to pay 21 per cent, more to get the same service. Does the Minister understand their frustration?

Mr. Denham

It is the hon. Gentleman's judgment that the service will remain unchanged. I hope that police numbers will increase and there may well be investment in other aspects of the service. It is ultimately the decision of the police authority what precept they wish to levy after consulting local people. The reality is that the increases received by the police service over the past three years compare well with levels historically. That is why the police service as a whole has a record number of officers and why the number continues to improve.

I have put the debate in the context of overall crime figures, which have decreased in the past few years. None of us is complacent, however, especially about particular crimes. Hertfordshire police force has a good performance record compared with similar forces, but there are issues about its history, the transfer of officers back to the Met and retention. We have acknowledged those and are working with the force in the hope that we can assist it to deal with those in the coming year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Nine o'clock.