HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc571-94

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

8.49 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise what is an extremely important issue for my constituents and for residents across Surrey. I am delighted to see many of my colleagues from Surrey here tonight. I am delighted also that we are able to start so early in the evening, which gives us the chance to debate the issues fully and properly. I am glad that the Minister is in her place and I look forward to her comments.

The reason for tonight's debate is the alarming press reports in the past few weeks that the Government plan to make yet another transfer of funding away from the home counties—away from Surrey and Surrey police—to other parts of the country. The fear has been expressed widely, particularly by the chief constable in the wake of those reports, that if Surrey suffers yet another bad funding settlement this year it will become increasingly difficult to provide to our local residents the policing service they expect. All too often, financial pressures mean that they are not getting it.

I am not expecting the Minister to stand up and say, "Yes, fine. You can have more money for Surrey." However, I hope that she takes away from the debate points that my colleagues and I, want to raise with her to ensure that when the funding settlement is announced it reflects the legitimate concerns of people in Surrey, and that she does not end up short-changing our police service.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Does my hon. Friend agree that many Surrey MPs at least hope that the Minister takes account of the exceptional burdens on Surrey police in the last 12 months? I am thinking not only of the operation relating to the so-called Deepcut deaths in my constituency, but of Operation Ruby relating to the disappearance and tragic murder of Milly Dowler, Operation Orb relating to crimes in respect of the south-east serial rapist and the operation relating to anti-terrorist activity around Heathrow airport. Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that when Surrey police, in the light of all those incredibly important inquiries, put in a claim to the Home Office for £1.6 million additional costs owing to those wholly exceptional burdens, only £0.3 million was approved?

Chris Grayling

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Surrey has suffered disproportionately over the past couple of years from major investigations that incur enormous costs from the day-to-day budget, quite apart from the impact of officers being transferred from front-line duties in parts of the county to those central inquiries. That has placed a huge financial burden on the county and made it much more difficult for the chief constable and his colleagues to make a tight budget work effectively in terms of delivery of front-line services.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

One of the difficulties, in local government as well as in police forces up and down the country, is that this Government tend to give a proportion of the money in grant—the major proportion—but then top up the specific, targeted grants that the local authorities and the police forces have to campaign for. That totally demolishes any predictability, and it is not until part way through the financial year that the police have any idea of their total budget.

Chris Grayling

I endorse that point. The problem with initiatives and funding that is linked to them is that security of funding is not provided. Core funding is often tighter than is suggested by the overall impression created by budgeting at the centre. The reality is that it takes an enormous amount of administrative time to try to secure such funds and they are, as my hon. Friend suggests, absolutely unpredictable —this in a county that already has the lowest per capita policing grant in the country by quite some margin.

When I was newly elected, I raised those issues in a written question to the Home Office and I was quite startled by the gap between Surrey and comparable parts of the country, even the next county up in the league table of per capita grants. There is no doubt that our police force is short-changed, given the real strategic issues that it faces—not only that, but our local taxpayers pay a disproportionate share of the burden. In most areas, some 25 per cent. of a force's budget comes from the police precept.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Will not the situation continue to worsen if the Government do not change the funding arrangements? Am I right in recalling that the precept was increased by 40 per cent. simply to avoid cuts to make up for money that the Government had taken away? Am I also right in recalling the chief constable's observation that if something was not done about the Government's new regime to penalise police services like the one in Surrey, the Surrey police could face the loss of 500 of their 2,000 officers because—thanks to this wretched Government— there would be no money to pay them?

Chris Grayling

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Last year our council tax payers had to pay an extra 40 per cent. on the precept. The total proportion of police costs met by local taxpayers is approaching 50 per cent.—it is over 43 per cent.—and if we have another bad settlement this year, it may even exceed that level. It is nearly twice as much as is expected in other parts of the country. Moreover, the burden often falls on low-paid people who may have public service jobs in, for instance, teaching, on police officers themselves, and above all on pensioners who face retirement on fixed incomes but see their local taxation costs rise year by year, because Surrey is being short-changed on police grants from central Government.

The Government emphasise the fact that Surrey is a relatively low-crime area, but ignore the fact that it also suffers from widespread antisocial behaviour, especially among gangs on trains. A huge number of troublemakers go up and down railway lines in and out of London. Gangs often travel out of London to Tattenham Corner in my constituency, simply because it is a quieter, less policed area where it is easier to cause trouble. The Government's information also masks crime overflows. Today the chief constable confirmed to me that violent crimes, robberies and burglaries are on the increase.

Mr. Wilshire

Surrey may be a low-crime area historically, but have not the Government just published figures showing a 30 per cent. increase in violent crime there?

Chris Grayling

Indeed. As policing in London is tightened up—often as a result of recruitment from neighbouring counties—it becomes easier for those who wish to cause trouble and commit offences to spill into more lightly policed areas.

The chief constable expects a 15 to 18 per cent. increase in violent crime this year. As for robbery, the force does not believe it will be able to meet its targets, given current trends, and projects an increase of between 6 and 15 per cent. Its target is 0 per cent., but given the spillover from London it is struggling to keep to 15 per cent.

Town centres pose a huge policing problem. It is somewhat ironic that this week, in what is undoubtedly a difficult security environment nationally, we can put 14,000 police on the streets of London, and that hundreds of police are on duty for a major football match, while in most town centres there are very few on duty on a Saturday night. I have seen that in my own area when out and about with police cars. On Saturday nights there are often only two response cars available to deal with trouble in town centres.

On Friday and Saturday nights—I am sure you have the same experience in your area, Madam Deputy Speaker—the trouble worsens, but the police are simply not there to deal with the crowds of troublemakers. The message from the Surrey constabulary is that they are struggling to deal with trouble in the county's top 10 disorder towns, because they do not have the necessary manpower on the ground. It cannot be right for the Government to believe they can take funds from a force that is struggling against the trends of increasing robbery, increasing violent crime and increasing trouble in town centres.

The reality is that those pressures are causing services to disappear or to be curtailed on the ground. At Epsom police station in my constituency—I have no doubt that those experiences are shared by colleagues in Surrey—the custody suite is no longer open except very occasionally; at the moment, it is not open at all, even on a Friday and Saturday night. As I have said, there are few police cars on the roads at peak times. There must be a question mark, if we have another tough funding round, over the future of many of the smaller police stations in the county—that is the reality.

As all that is happening, front-line officers are facing not just budget cuts but more bureaucracy. A few weeks ago, I had an extremely interesting conversation with one of the senior officers in the county. I asked why we seemed to be able to get so few officers on the road and why, in a force of 2,000 officers, the number out on duty on a Saturday night was so disappointingly small. The answer came back, "It is because we are dealing with the bureaucracy, with the target culture, with the expectations that are placed on us by monitoring at the centre."

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend said that he spent time going out with Surrey police. I wonder whether he had the experience that I had not long ago going out in Staines, where just after 5 o'clock the officer I was with took someone to the station who was suspected of shoplifting in Sainsbury's. Three and a bit hours later, we finally got back on the street. That is the extent of the paperwork that the Government have imposed on Surrey police—for one officer, three hours for a small case of shoplifting.

Chris Grayling

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend has said.

I looked at the national policing plan and I was shocked by what the Government seem to expect police forces on the ground to do in terms of preparation of materials and information for the centre. Let me quote the policing plan: Local three-year strategy plans and annual policing plans must, while contributing to the delivery of national priorities, reflect local circumstances and be responsive to local needs. It is vitally important that police authorities … engage with and consult their local communities to identify how far national and local priorities should be reflected in forces' plans and what the appropriate targets should be.

The Government and the public need to be able to judge whether forces are delivering the quality of service that everyone expects. This requires a robust and transparent performance management system for assessing the effectiveness of forces and individual Basic Command Units (BCUs) in tackling crime and the fear of crime. The planning framework at the end of this document sets out how local plans will be measured in terms of raising police performance", and so on. What I want as a citizen and what I believe my constituents want is the police to go out to arrest people who have committed offences, to identify where offences are being committed and to get people in front of the courts. All too often, police officers on the front line are saying to us that they are not able to do that job in the way they would wish because so much time is spent on monitoring, on tracking and on the bureaucracy that the Government are imposing on the police service.

Interestingly, I talked to one officer last week who said not only that the police are being asked to meet targets but that often the targets are contradictory. The Government have imposed new objectives this year. They want more criminals caught and put in front of the courts and more crimes investigated properly, but some of the performance targets require police simply to get to a certain stage with an investigation and to fill out a certain number of forms. If a crime happens and there is very little likelihood of being able to apprehend the person, they are none the less being asked to go through certain bureaucratic processes in order to go up a notch on the ladder towards achieving their target. They say that, if they could spend their time in the way they prefer, they would focus on the crimes that they can solve and on the criminals who are having the most impact on society, and they would be able to have much more impact on crime trends and on reducing levels of offences.

That is the feedback from the front line. It is not from me as a politician but from police officers to whom I talk. The danger is—we see it across all the public services—that politically imposed targets driven from Whitehall, setting out requirements as they are seen by Ministers and by civil servants, deliver to the front line something that in practical terms does not work.

My fear is that what is happening in my county, which is represented by all those of my hon. Friends who are present tonight, is that our police force is being asked to do more and more to meet the requirements, targets and bureaucracy of the Home Office. Central Government have set two or three objectives in the national policing plan this year. At the same time, our police force is being asked to do that for less and less money. Year by year, the budget increases have not reflected the increased pension costs and the increase in national insurance—additional costs imposed by central Government. The consequence is that, ultimately, local police forces such as Surrey police are being asked to do much more for less money, to a point where the only way they can square the circle is by turning to local taxpayers, who are already being asked to do far more than their counterparts in other areas of the country.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

All hon. Members who represent Surrey share the problem. The Surrey police force is one of the most efficient in the country, and it is led by an excellent chief constable. It has already passed some fairly draconian plans to concentrate resources on the front line. The difficulty is that, with the projected decline in resources relative to other counties, it will have to undertake further cuts, which can only take place at the front line. That is precisely the message that I was hearing even today in Elmbridge from the chief constable and other policemen who were there.

Chris Grayling

I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend says. That is the practical consequence of what is happening, but let me tell the Minister about an even more practical consequence—a true story from a few weeks ago. One of my constituents was assaulted on a recreation ground in the village where I live. He was very badly hurt. He was kicked in the head—kicked unconscious—and teeth were kicked out of his mouth. The nearest police car was half an hour away. It took half an hour to arrive at the scene of what was undoubtedly the most serious offence committed in my constituency for the past 12 months.

Such delays should not happen. Someone who is the victim of a serious crime should not wait half an hour for a police car to arrive. Yet if we look across the force on Friday or Saturday nights, there is a very thin blue line of officers protecting people from unruly behaviour, robbery and violent crime. All too often, the police simply do not have the number of officers to respond to lesser misdemeanours—things that may appear to those in call centres to be not as serious as others, but they may have a great effect on people. They often involve pensioners whose garden fences have been kicked down or who have been terrified by gangs of youths throwing stones at their windows. That is why we need more police on the streets, rather than fewer.

The Government keep telling us that more police officers than ever are out on the streets protecting us, yet the number of police cars out and about on patrol on Saturday nights in my constituency has fallen from five to two, in a good week, during the past three or four years. That is the reality. Where are the rest of the police officers? Well, they are meeting targets, complying with bureaucracy, dealing with initiatives and working in special units. We have not got enough people in the front line.

The final reason why this is important—I say this genuinely to the Minister—is that it is very easy to look at the areas outside London and say that they are lower-crime areas than the great metropolis. The situation in north Peckham cannot be compared with that in Epsom, Leatherhead or Reigate—I have no doubt at all about that—but, none the less, such forces cannot be bled dry to pay for policing elsewhere. Not only do they deal with the day-to-day concerns of individual residents, antisocial behaviour, robbery and violence, but they are being asked to deal with terrorism and other major incidents, as my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said a moment ago. Ours is a police force that must provide support to Heathrow and Gatwick airports and which must provide policing in an area of the country that is full of potential terrorist targets and of individuals who could be the subject of major criminal activity. It is not the case that many of the security problems that we face in this country will be confined to London. If the forces immediately outside London are bled dry as a result of an attempt to switch finance from one part of the country to another, ultimately, the risks will be enormous.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend refers to forces such as Surrey's being bled dry. Does he agree that one of the ways in which Surrey's force is undermined is that once young police officers are recruited and trained, particularly if they are based in Staines in my constituency, they need only change jobs and go about two miles down the road, and they will get £6,000 more for working in the Metropolitan police? Alternatively, they can get much the same pay by going to Cornwall, where the cost of living is lower. Is that not bleeding dry forces such as Surrey, which pay the training costs and then see their officers being poached?

Chris Grayling

I absolutely endorse my hon. Friend's point. He, I and many other Conservative Members had meetings with the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who listened carefully to the arguments that we put forward. Although the steps that he took were small, and most of the initiatives that have been taken were at county level, he demonstrated an understanding of the problem that I hope that the current Minister will reflect. The purpose of tonight's debate is to appeal to her intelligent view of the challenges that forces such as Surrey face.

In a few weeks, the Minister will preside over funding announcements that could make a radical difference to the ability of individual forces to deliver a good or bad service. There are undoubtedly pressures on the Home Office in many parts of the country, but the hon. Lady must not be tempted to look at certain areas as low-crime areas and lesser priorities and therefore not resource them properly. A county such as Surrey has antisocial behaviour problems, adverse crime trends in robbery and violence, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) says, it has been and continues to be bled dry by other forces that have the ability to pay more money. Ultimately, the Minister, as much as any of us, needs Surrey police to be able to deliver a quality service. If they cannot do so, everyone will suffer—not just the county but the Government, because their reputation will be affected.

Our message to the Minister is: please do not allow this funding review to lead to a stripping down still further of Surrey police's budget. Please do not force on the taxpayers of Surrey, many of whom are pensioners on fixed incomes, yet another major ratcheting-up of the tax that they pay. Please make sure that Surrey, as a force on the fringe of London, which will have an important role to play not just in local but in national policing issues, receives an equitable settlement. Do not let this force down because it is politically convenient to do so. The Minister and her colleagues have a duty to protect policing in all parts of the country. I know that she is a lady of integrity and diligence in her role. I look to her to ensure that the area that I represent does not suffer adversely in the review over which she is about to preside.

9.13 pm
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate? I have been slightly concerned about the body language of the Minister and her Parliamentary Private Secretary during the course of the debate, which seemed to say, "That lot down south don't know they're born," and that the difficulties faced in our constituencies are as nothing compared with those in the constituencies that they represent. My concern is that that perception may feed into the decisions that the Minister takes.

I want to take a little trouble to try to explain the situation to the Minister, who I have not had the opportunity to congratulate on taking up her new responsibilities. Surrey Members have seen not only the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), but his predecessor, who is now Secretary of State for Education and Skills, about Surrey policing.

The enormous change to the funding for Surrey police since 1997 is at the heart of many of the difficulties that the force faces. It has changed from a reasonably well-funded force to one that, according to any force-by-force comparison, is funded at the bottom end. The Minister's officials will probably be able to give her a proper briefing to that effect, as will Surrey's chief constable, who I am sure will beat a path to her door using not only the representations of Surrey Members but the Home Office chain of command, if I may put it that way.

There has been a substantial change to the position of Surrey police. The force has been caught by the pressures of the change to the formula and decreasing resources while the relative cost of living in Surrey has continued to rise relentlessly. That means that most of the policemen who live in Surrey do not police Surrey at all—they are Met police. The Minister will be all too aware of the peculiar situation in which policemen are not able to live near the area that they police, and that has consequent disadvantages for the effectiveness of policing and policemen's ability to be present in a community in both their private and public lives.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Does my hon. Friend realise that there is a specific problem in constituencies such as mine and, I think, Epsom and Ewell? Until a few years ago, part of my constituency was in the Metropolitan police area. I thought that the deal that I did with the then Home Secretary was not only that there would be transitional arrangements, which are now being phased out, but that there would be fair funding to recognise the fact that Surrey police's problems, given that it was adjacent to the Met, were likely to get worse because the Met was withdrawing behind the old Greater London area boundaries. The problem will hit us again because of changes to the Met that will cause a sudden loss of about 1,000 officers. The Met will look for replacements elsewhere, and Surrey is a prime target. It might help my hon. Friend to know that I am talking about the Edmund-Davies reforms.

Mr. Blunt

My hon. Friend makes a relevant point. I share his sense of responsibility, because both our constituencies were split in 1997 before the Greater London area reforms were implemented. The Met policed half my constituency and the other half was covered by Surrey police. He and I tried to ensure that the police boundaries reflected the county boundaries, which was self-evidently common sense for our constituencies. However, the policing of the whole of my constituency has been under constant challenge since that extremely sensible reform was introduced by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

Of course, an additional problem has arisen owing to the changeover and Surrey's requirement to recruit more officers to police the areas for which it took responsibility from the Met. The Surrey force set up an extremely fine training establishment, but the pressure of the cost of living in Surrey means that newly trained officers discover that, because of the national pay rates that the police enjoy, their quality of life will be substantially better if they move from Surrey to pursue their careers as policemen in other places such as north-west and north-east England. That has had the knock-on effect of increasing the cost of training and retaining officers in Surrey. Surrey has ended up with a young and inexperienced police force compared with other forces throughout the country because the chief constable has had to make a deliberate effort to retain numbers on the ground by reducing the force's payroll. He has done that by shedding experience to save the resources that would pay for it. That has begun to have a serious effect on the style of policing in Surrey. What worries me is that the complaints I now receive from people who are not as well served by the police as they should be are a direct result of the lack of experience of police officers and the challenges that go with trying to police Surrey in a new way with far fewer resources.

I applaud the chief constable for his efforts to reorganise the police in Surrey to meet his budget constraints, but the Minister needs to understand that the force is about to snap. His strategy will not be sustained if further significant pressure is put on his budget. The Minister should give the issue serious consideration. There is a problem with the quality of policing in Surrey. Its success story in crime prevention is at risk. It is more important to reinforce success than to create failure by thinking that because there is no overt problem, Surrey's excellent record on crime prevention will not get significantly worse.

We temporarily addressed the funding problem when the current Secretary of State for Education and Skills was the Minister with responsibility for policing. He looked imaginatively and openly at bids for specific pots of funding that might meet the crisis in-year. It is disappointing that only £0.3 million of the £1.6 million of bids for special operations has been paid to Surrey. I urge the Minister to consider using Surrey's special bids to relieve the pressures that it faces. That would allow her, at least temporarily and within the limited powers at her immediate disposal, to assist the force in Surrey, which is under threat. Although that would be no more than a Band-Aid for the next financial year, the mechanism would address the funding formula, which is doing enormous damage to long-term policing in Surrey, until an opportunity arose to rebase the formula, in particular on the 2001 census figures. That would also help to improve the overall performance in Surrey.

The Minister should not think that the problem is new for Members of Parliament who represent Surrey. The delegations to see her predecessors have been around this buoy for at least four years. This debate is yet more evidence of the problems facing Surrey police. The problems are real and I hope that the Minister will genuinely address them.

9.23 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate and thank the House for giving us the time to do justice to something that is a serious problem at least in my constituency and, I suspect, throughout the county.

From my observations, there is no doubt in my mind that policing in Spelthorne is in crisis. That is in no way the fault of Surrey police. They could not work harder, try harder or do more. The great problem is, that they are trying to police with one hand tied behind their back because of the lack of resources. I am sick and tired of hearing the Government say, "Ah, well, but, we gave everyone 3 per cent. extra last year." That was only because their formula was so awful that they had to doctor it. Had they applied the formula they introduced to Surrey, the grant would have been cut.

For one year, we had a 3 per cent. increase to fiddle the figures—something the Government are good at—and I have little doubt that if we exert enough pressure, they will fiddle the figures again and thus disguise the reality of the funding formula. The chief constable of Surrey has predicted that if that funding formula is phased in in full according to the Government's timetable, he will lose a sum equivalent to a quarter of his officers. We in Surrey face rising crime: Government figures show a 30 per cent. increase in violent crime and a 10 per cent. increase in overall crime in Surrey—despite the figures they spin about national rates. Despite that, if the Government do not relent, Surrey is faced with the prospect of losing 25 per cent. of our officers. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what to say to our constituents when crime rises even more because we have fewer police officers. What do we say, other than that the Government are making a deliberate attempt to take money from Surrey to give it to their cronies elsewhere in the country?

I understand that the Government are now thinking of increasing the grant by the rate of inflation. A fat lot of good that will do. It does not take account of factors such as pensions, or the cost of training more and more young officers only to watch them go elsewhere. It takes no account of the impact on a force of only 2,000 officers of tragedies such as the Milly Dowler case. Although the Dowler family are not constituents of mine, the investigation was carried out from Staines police station, and I saw for myself the resources that that tragic case required a small police force to give. The Government make no allowance for such events. They say, "Come cap in hand afterwards, and we'll see if we can help." When we discover that only a small sum is given, it is too late.

What is a police force to do when its grant is being cut— when it is being given only a rate-of-inflation increase and its costs are rising faster than that? I can tell the Minister what Surrey police authority is saying it will have to do if she does nothing. Last year, the precept increased by 40 per cent. simply so that the police authority could stand still in financial terms—the authority was forced to choose between cutting policing in Surrey or making up for the money that the Government were putting elsewhere. Now, on the back of the Government telling us that they will provide only a rate-of-inflation increase, an increase in the precept of a further 17 per cent. is being predicted—yet the Minister's colleagues elsewhere in the Government are saying that they intend to make sure that council tax does not increase by much. If the Minister sticks to a grant increase of 2.5 per cent. or thereabouts, and another Minister comes along and caps council tax increases, it will be the equivalent of Government policy forcing a cut in the police service of the county of Surrey. That is a disgrace.

I know what answer the Minister will give us: she will say that if we start to tinker with the formula, the whole thing will get out of hand. I therefore suggest that between now and making her announcement the Minister examines the problems that Surrey faces—they are not wholly unique, but they are certainly special. The cost of living issue has been gone over year after year and we have yet to see a solution. My hon. Friends have explained that parts of their constituencies used to be policed by the Met; the whole of mine was until the changes they described occurred. The impact on Surrey has already been mentioned: there is a huge need to recruit new people because the officers who were seconded to Surrey police during the transition period have now returned to the Met. The number of officers recruited is therefore large, and they are young.

Our recruitment record is excellent. Surrey police are doing a splendid job and recruiting is not an issue. The issue is that a lot of youngsters enter the police service and get themselves fully trained while living in and around Surrey; then, when they need to set up home on their own or move elsewhere in the county, they discover that the salary they are getting simply will not cover the cost of finding a house, getting married and bringing up a child or two.

What happens? Either they go to a much cheaper part of the country or they say, "All we need to do is walk up the road, cross the Metropolitan police authority boundary and we will be £6,000 better off." They can do that without leaving where they live in my constituency. The Minister needs to do something about that. She should say to police forces elsewhere that if they recruit from authorities such as Surrey, they should make some payment towards the contribution that Surrey has made to training, rather than using Surrey as a soft touch. I recall that the forces of Gloucestershire or Devon and Cornwall have never spent a penny on advertising for police officers for many years. They do not need to. They simply have to pop along the M4 or the M3 to have a chat with people in Surrey. They can then fill all their vacancies. The Minister could usefully stop that without upsetting her formula.

The Minister could examine carefully the London weighting arrangements. We have been round this course before. Those of us who are right up against the Metropolitan police authority boundary need to have something to give to police officers to encourage them to stay. The chief constable and the Surrey police authority have done a huge amount within the resources that are available to them, but they cannot negotiate their own pay and conditions; they are bound by national agreements. The Minister might care to examine that.

More than anything else the Minister must treat Surrey and other such places fairly. She must stop regarding my county and my constituency as a ready source of cash that can be squandered among her cronies in the midlands and the north. It is high time that that stopped. It is high time also that the Minister accepted that everybody pays their taxes and that they are all entitled to a fair share. Unfortunately, Surrey is not getting it, but despite that Surrey police are doing marvellously. They are trying harder and harder, but they end up standing still. That is not the fault of Surrey police. Every time the Minister publishes figures showing an increase in crime in Surrey, it is not the fault of the police; it is her fault. The Government should be ashamed of what they are doing to the people of Surrey.

9.32 pm
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for initiating this debate. As long as the Minister does not get too excited or relieved, I shall start by saying something complimentary. The Home Office grant for the CCTV cameras that were launched today in Walton-on-Thames is greatly to be welcomed. It is an interesting benchmark project. The hon. Lady was due to unveil the plaque, but other business unavoidably detained her. Therefore, I carried out that duty for her. I was called Hazel Blears—that is in the sense of a quotation, Madam Deputy Speaker, before you call me to order—because that was the name on the plaque. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the Home Office for the money. I was delighted to see the reassuring effect that it has on the community.

The second compliment that I would pay is that we are grateful for the reassurance money that has come into Surrey and certainly into Elmbridge, which is the borough in which my constituency resides. That is of great importance and it is much welcomed by the police.

Given those two positive items, I hope that the Minister will listen carefully when I say that there are some big negatives. The chief constable genuinely believes that if he can prove that reassurance projects work—I know that there is a trial period—their funding will not be withdrawn if a new initiative comes along or if pressures elsewhere in the country demand that Surrey makes further cuts. If that were to happen, it would be catastrophic and would hugely damage the morale of police officers who are working extremely hard on the project. Like my colleagues, I am extremely impressed by the dedication of all the officers, right up to the chief constable.

The police have serious problems in achieving what they want to achieve on the front line. I have had several conversations with the key officers covering my constituency, who understand the pressures. Each part of the country differs; nevertheless, the borough of Elmbridge has not done well recently on crime. I do not blame Surrey police for that. There is not a great deal of violent crime, although recently there have been worrying instances of gun crime. The problem has not got out of hand but, like other parts of the country, we are increasingly suffering from drug-related crime, which leads to petty theft and sometimes more serious theft. If the police are stretched at the front line, it is difficult for them to respond to such crime.

Another problem arising from the county's adjacency to London is the fact that London is an avid exporter of criminals. Our road network, not least the M25, means that we are sometimes a target area for criminals from Liverpool or Bristol, who decide that Surrey is a soft touch. In addition, there are unreasonable strains on the police. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) mentioned the tragedy of Milly Dowler, whose family live in my constituency. She was abducted from Walton station in my constituency; we know not how or why. We do know that she is dead. At various stages in the inquiry, 100 officers were involved, based at the headquarters in Staines. A core of officers is still involved—the case cannot be allowed to rest unsolved, because it is possible that the perpetrator of the crime lives locally. If so, history tells us the perpetrator will strike again. I do not wish to worry my constituents or other people in Surrey, but we must be concerned about that possibility. We cannot abandon the case simply because we do not know why Milly disappeared in full daylight at 4 o'clock outside Walton station, only to be found in woodlands just over the county border.

That is a real burden, but other issues in Surrey are stretching resources. Surrey police are ready and willing to react, but there is the problem of whether retrospective compensation is available. The presence at Heathrow, for example, is not an inexpensive burden: it is an added strain on an already stretched budget. We must then consider the points made by my hon. Friends. In my own constituency, I have heard that there are apologies if two policemen or women are spotted walking around together—the explanation is that one of them is being trained. There is a constant loss of trained officers. It is a bit like London buses—you wait for one, then suddenly two come along together. In the case of the police officers, the trouble is, of the two, one is untrained.

That is a serious problem. I do not know the economics of trying to compensate Surrey for the loss of trained officers to other forces, but it is a big problem

that deserves serious consideration, not least because Surrey invests in training. Another problem in Surrey is living costs. It is not uncommon for recruits to Surrey police to live a long way away. They do a five-day shift, sleep on someone's floor, then go home to another part of the United Kingdom. That is good for Surrey while they are there, but it is not a sustainable basis for a police force. However, it is the result of the cost of living in Surrey. House prices in my constituency average £410,000, so the problem is not trivial. Our debate is about the police, but other public services are seriously affected by the difficulty of living locally.

I urge the Minister to bear in mind the fact that some of us willingly negotiated with the Home Secretary of the day the transfer of the bulk of what was then my constituency to the Surrey police area. I have no criticism of the willingness of Surrey police to police. They have a profound interest in community policing, which pleases me, but they are stretched. If Surrey is considered one of the best police forces in the country, the squeeze under the formulae will turn it into one of the less good. I ask the Minister to consider that. It cannot be a Government objective. They surely want to maintain a good force, not with a largesse of resources, but not through under-funding, which means that what the force does well today, it will not be able to do tomorrow.

My balanced approach is to thank the Minister for what the Home Office has done, which is welcomed. On a non-party political basis, we recognise that certain initiatives that the Government have taken are good. Please will the Minister make sure that those initiatives are not suddenly withdrawn, and please will she realise that, underlying my praise, there is deep concern that she is presiding over a decline, year by year, in the capacity of the Surrey force to deal with a front-line county problem.

9.41 pm
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

I shall add a few points to those that my hon. Friends have, I hope, managed to hammer home. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for allowing us to take part in the debate.

The biggest problem facing the police force, not just in Surrey but throughout the country, also faces organisations such as local authorities and the national health service. It is the unpredictability of the funds that they receive. The Government seem unable to resist the temptation to top-slice the funding and maintain control of it even after it is allocated locally. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has a similar approach to local government. Control is maintained by introducing targets, allocating funds for specific purposes and top-slicing, so there is no predictability. Local authorities, the police force and the NHS all have to go through loops and hoops to gain funding, which they receive part of the way through the year. That leaves the police force unable to implement the service in such a way as to meet the targets and demands set by the Home Office.

Policemen and bureaucrats in the police force in Surrey and elsewhere spend an astronomical amount of time and money to meet demands for best value, Audit Commission targets and the requirements of the various inspectorates that descend on every police force. I have not done my homework, but I should do so in preparation for the next occasion we meet the Minister. Can she give us some information about the amount of money spent by various police authorities and the proportion of their time spent providing documentation in response to demands from the Home Office and the Audit Commission, and the demands of best value and all the other targets imposed on the police force? If the top-sliced money were returned and the pressure to meet targets removed, the money could go directly into policing.

I shall touch on the disadvantage of being close to London, which has already been mentioned and applies to all the surrounding local authorities. The unique feature of Surrey is that the two major London airports are located nearby. The international aspects of crime have been felt by London for many years. As London policing improves, international crime is starting to hit places like Surrey dramatically.

The other disadvantage is that Surrey's attractiveness to those seeking housing has led to high prices. As my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) said, the average cost of a house in his constituency is £400,000, and it is not much less in mine. The efforts to establish housing associations to secure low-cost home ownership will achieve a temporary. short-term advantage, but the net effect will be to fuel the fire, as the cost of housing in the area is likely to rise as an indirect result of low-cost home ownership. We need to persuade the Government to consider the problems more broadly and take a regional—if I dare use that phrase, as there is no such thing as a south-east region—and economic approach across the nation, rather than simply taking a national approach.

Other difficulties in Surrey include traffic problems. There is a list of major roads, including the A25, A24 and A29, as well as the M25 and A3, which are motorways, that have to be policed because they go through villages that have narrow pavements, tiny bending roads and ancient houses, with a constant threat of enormous accidents. As far as I can see, the crime prevention officers dealing with traffic in my patch number only one man, yet there are areas throughout my constituency along the A25, A24 and A29 that are used literally as race tracks. It is well known that motor cyclists have race tracks running through our area.

The police have to concentrate all their traffic work force on specific areas at specific times to try to deal with that problem, which deprives other areas, including some villages. I have just received a huge petition from Ockley, a little village situated on the A29 that has three fabulous old pubs. In the village, that road is called Staines lane. It is a dead straight Roman road and the speed limit is 40 mph. In much of the area, only one side of the road has a pavement, and it is approximately 1.5 ft wide. Cars and motor bikes travel along it at well over 100 mph at all hours of the day and night. The petition is huge. Indeed, to my dismay, at the bottom of the covering letter, the signatory said that only part of the petition from that tiny village had been sent. The police cannot handle the problem.

Another problem has been highlighted by the National Farmers Union, which has lobbied me and local police in Surrey about crime on agricultural land involving not merely theft of small hand tools, but robberies in which vehicles such as combine harvesters and so on have been removed. The flow of wheeled vehicles from Surrey's agricultural areas to areas as far away as Ireland is becoming notorious. The police have diverted extra efforts, funds and personnel into special campaigns in an attempt to stem the problem, and they have had some success. While they are doing that, the gangs to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referred get back on the trains, come out of London and move through Epsom, Leatherhead, Great Bookham, Effingham and Guildford. The havoc that they create at each of the stops, given half an opportunity, is the sort of thing that I used to expect when I lived in central London, but the policing there was very much greater.

There is a lot that can be done, even with the little budget that I am sure the police will get, but I ask the Minister above all to consider ways of reducing the strain on the Surrey police force and every other police force in terms of demands to produce papers and meet targets that may not be relevant, as well as to reduce the demands of best value and cut bureaucracy. She and her colleagues have said that they will do that. We hear a lot about it, but see no results. If we do not get such action, policing in Surrey, which is good but slipping, will slump.

9.49 pm
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to reply to hon. Members who raised a whole series of issues about policing in Surrey. I am pleased that we have had a lengthy time in which to discuss the subject, particularly following three hours of debate on the Floor of the House on the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. I am sure that our discussions will be productive.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing an additional debate to the one that he obtained in February last year. I would not go so far as to say that he has a record on the subject, but he is clearly making good points on behalf of his constituents. Other hon. Members said that they have been round the houses on these issues and have been to see various Ministers.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) on the constructive way in which they made their comments. I certainly undertake to think carefully about the issues that they raised, and I shall do my best to respond to them now.

I very much thank the hon. Member for Esher and Walton for standing in for me this morning at the launch of the CCTV campaign, and I apologise for not being there. I was devastated to realise that I could not attend, and I have undertaken to carry out a further visit to the force in Surrey as soon as I possibly can. Having had the great pleasure of meeting the chief constable, Denis O'Connor, on several occasions since I took up this post, I am personally very impressed by his creativity, imagination and deep commitment to the people in the community that his force serves. I look forward enormously to returning, and hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to be present as well.

I want to deal primarily with police funding, police numbers, recruitment and retention. First, I shall say a few words about funding, because that is clearly a matter of key concern. I will shortly announce details of the 2004–05 provisional police funding settlement; hon. Members will appreciate that until I have done so, I am not in a position to provide specific details. I can say, however, that Government expenditure on policing has increased by 30 per cent. over the past three years—a significant extra investment, as I am sure hon. Members will acknowledge.

Chris Grayling


Sir Paul Beresford


Ms Blears

I want to make a bit more progress. I sat and listened to the hon. Gentlemen for an hour and a half, and enjoyed it enormously, but I want to get through a little more of the funding background and then I will certainly give way.

Funding is rightly allocated by formula. I assure hon. Members that that is not a capricious system—indeed, I understand that it was originally introduced by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), so it has a pedigree that they would recognise. It allocates available funding on the basis of projected need for policing services, taking into account population, social factors and policing activity. The whole basis of the formula is to try to allocate the resources that we have—even with our significant increases, it is still a finite pot—to the areas of greatest need. The formula also underpins the revenue support grant—RSG—that is provided to every police authority by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Welsh Assembly Government. The RSG is an equalising grant that takes into account the resources that are available to each local authority.

I do not accept, therefore, that Surrey is unfairly funded. However, all Governments have seen the importance of damping the impact of change. As hon. Members said, Surrey received a 3 per cent. increase last year. We have used the damping effects of the formula, as well as floors and ceilings. Surrey has been considerably better funded over the past nine years—not just during the term of this Government—than it would have been had there been an unrestrained application of the formula as it was originally set out. The damping effect has alleviated the pressure on Surrey's funding by some 10 per cent.

There were additional specific grants as well as the 3 per cent. general policing grant that Surrey received in the past year. The 3 per cent. general policing grant took Surrey police to £85.4 million and they received an extra £10.8 million on top of that. That includes £3.9 million from the crime fighting fund for additional officers, £3.4 million for the Airwave communications project and just under £1 million for DNA funding to ensure that Surrey police can take greater advantage of matches on the DNA database.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley mentioned top-slicing for specific grants. Almost all the top-slicing is for matters that the police say that they want to pursue. I remind Conservative Members that the previous Government set aside funding for 5,000 extra officers, yet not one single extra officer was employed despite the inclusion of the funding in the general formula. The money was spent not on extra police officers but on other items. One of the remarkable successes of the Government's introduction of the crime fighting fund is that the money has gone towards the intended goal: getting extra officers throughout the country, including Surrey. Together with the extra community support officers, of whom there will be 63 in Surrey, we are beginning to experience at least higher visibility policing, for which local people in Surrey and elsewhere have long cried out. I therefore believe that some of the top-slicing is justified for the crime fighting fund, the rural policing fund, which people have demanded to take account of sparsity in rural areas, and the Airwave investment, which is a massive investment in bringing forces' communications technology up to date and making it fit for the 21st century.

Sir Paul Beresford

The problem with the Minister's argument is that she tries to apply national criteria to local issues and people. We have a local police authority and a local police force. It would be much better to put the money back into the pool, use a proper funding formula to distribute it and let local people determine how they want to use it to meet local demands and the fluctuations and variations in crime in their areas.

Ms Blears

Earlier, I said that the previous Government put in money for extra police officers but did not manage to get a single one. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that that is a top priority. However, I shall deal with local versus national standards, which is an important part of our debate in the public sector as well as specifically in the police force. I hope he acknowledges that the funding formula is not sufficiently sophisticated or sensitive in all cases to target some of the resources at the important issues. That applies to the rural policing grant. That is why we have kept it as a separate pot of money for which people do not have to bid. It is allocated to the forces that operate in rural areas and they have universally welcomed that.

Sir Paul Beresford

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Blears

I want to consider police numbers. Under the crime fighting fund, we have provided not only more than 9,000 additional officers nationally but an additional 140 posts in Surrey. Comparisons with 1997 are difficult in Surrey because boundaries have changed, as the hon. Member for Esher and Walton said.

As well as the extra 140 posts, it is important to note that police staff strength in the force has increased significantly. In the current police area, the number has increased by 248 in the past two years. All hon. Members accept that it is vital to maximize the skills of police staff if we are to release more police officers for front-line duties. We therefore want as much of a skill mix—if I may use that expression—as possible in the police force so that members of police staff increasingly carry out some of the duties that previously only uniformed and full warranted officers undertook. We can thus release warranted officers to do some of the front-line duties that only they can carry out.

Surrey police force is a leader in developing work force modernisation. Necessity is occasionally the mother of invention and I am delighted that Surrey police have grasped the agenda and are leading the way on projects, which, I hope, will inform the skill mix of the police force nationally. Indeed, we are currently negotiating with them about the way in which we can invest some of the £8 million for work force modernisation in developing some of the ideas of which they are at the forefront.

Mr. Wilshire

We all accept that the numbers of both police officers and support staff have gone up in the current Surrey police force area, but when the Minister quotes such figures, will she tell us how much of that rise in numbers relates to an overall increase caused by the substantial increase in the size of the police force area, and how much to real extra money?

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Wilshire

What proportion of the figures that the Minister is citing is the result of the big increase in the size of the Surrey police force area, and what proportion is really extra manpower, after allowance has been made for the fact that the area is bigger? She seems to be taking credit to which she is not entitled to.

Ms Blears

Far be it from me to seek to present figures that are anything less than absolutely accurate. It is true that Surrey has 140 extra posts and an extra 248 police staff. Part of the money for those is provided through the crime fighting fund—a specific grant designed to increase the number of police officers—as happens in the rest of the country. I have already explained that funding is allocated on the basis of a formula that takes into account the policing needs of an area as well as its population, social deprivation factors and so on. There is a fairly complex balance involved in meeting an area's need for policing services, and I am delighted that Surrey, like every other area in the country, now has record police numbers.

Mr. Wilshire

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Blears

No; now I want to move on to retention—an issue that has been raised by several hon. Members. Retention is a problem not only for the police but for public bodies throughout the south-east. I recently had a meeting with the chairs of police authorities and chief constables from several forces in the south-east, to discuss some of the proposals that were made last year to deal with retention, and decide whether we could do anything further to assist. I am very conscious of the difficulties that those problems cause for the force, and of the fact that in recent years there have been significant transfers into the Metropolitan police when it has been recruiting.

Surrey police have responded well to that agenda, not only on the financial elements of the strategy for retention, but on skills mix, management and corporate culture. They have done a lot of work on analysing why people want to resign and work elsewhere, and they have tried to change the way in which the organisation functions, so as to give people a sense that they are part of a force in which they have a future and career options, and are engaged in worthwhile work. I have been impressed by Surrey's grasp of that corporate agenda, which seeks to make the best of the people working for it. Surrey police are quickly positioning themselves as a model in that respect, and we hope to learn from the good practice that the chief constable has introduced.

Mr. Blunt

The compliments and bouquets that the Minister is handing out to the chief constable and the Surrey force are welcome. She said that necessity is the mother of invention. In a previous incarnation, she was responsible for the provision of health services in the south-east, so how many of the relentless pressures on public services does she think have a common core—the cost of living in the south-east?

Ms Blears

Everybody would acknowledge that the cost of living, particularly the cost of housing, is one of the biggest pressures on public service workers in the south-east. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton said that the average price of a house in his constituency was £400,000; the average price in my constituency is probably nearer £50,000 or £60,000. That is the measure of the difference that can exist between the north and south of this country. We have been trying to come up with ideas, such as housing for key workers, and shared and joint equity schemes, in which people purchase the first 20 per cent. of their property and then seek to add to that proportion as their income increases. The problem of how to live in the south-east and sustain a family life besets not only the public sector but the lower-paid people in the private sector.

For the Surrey force, the first thing that we have tried to do is change the criteria for the crime fighting fund, so that there are no rewards for recruiting through transfer. That means that forces in places such as Devon and Cornwall, which people might find attractive to work in, no longer get an incentive through the crime fighting fund to recruit through transfer. They now have to recruit by growing their own officers. That is now beginning to have an effect, and the rate of transfers is slowing down.

We put £3.6 million into Surrey last year for joint equity housing schemes, and we have raised the threshold for forces in the south-east to make special priority payments—including an increase from the standard 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. in Surrey. Officers now get a £2,000 a year allowance because they live in that area. Just two weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister launched the communities plan, which contains a significant element for key worker housing. Surrey police have provided evidence of need and a willingness to engage in putting in a contribution themselves. I am delighted about that, and we are going to explore with the Deputy Prime Minister whether there is room for taking significant steps under the communities plan.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Will the Minister extend the assurance that she has just mentioned in terms of the crime fighting fund to the Metropolitan police's need to replace officers in the near future? In Surrey, we think that we are going to be raided, and if there were a bar on the Metropolitan police's taking what to them is the easy route of taking ready trained police officers from counties such as Surrey, it would be a great reassurance to the people there. It would not necessarily give the police officers staying in Surrey any increase in income, but let us try to separate those two issues. I am trying to prevent a raid from taking place in the near future on what are already scarce officer resources in the county.

Ms Blears

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but it would be wrong, and probably unlawful, for me to say to officers that they cannot choose of their own free will where they want to be employed and to exercise their skills. I am conscious, however, of the fact that forces such as Surrey—it is not unique in this regard—invest in training, which entails certain costs, only to see people creamed off and going to another force. That is an issue, and if we can address it without unduly restricting the freedom of officers to work where they want to, I will certainly undertake to look into that.

Sir Paul Beresford

I agree with the Minister on that matter. In contrast to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), I do not think that there should be any restrictions of that kind. We have suggested before, however, that there could be a dowry to cover some of the costs involved in such cases. Such a dowry or penalty could act as a disincentive to the Metropolitan police from taking young, newly trained policemen and women from Surrey. It would partly compensate Surrey for the cost, but it would also provide a disincentive to the Metropolitan police in terms of raiding Surrey's policemen and women.

Ms Blears

I am aware that that issue has also been raised in the Thames Valley force. It is referred to there as a transfer fee rather than a dowry, but I am sure that it is a similar idea. As I have said, this issue is in my mind, but at the moment I am not convinced that we have an effective mechanism for achieving what we want without impinging on the freedom of individuals. I will keep the matter under review, and I recently met the chairs of the police authorities and the chief constables to discuss recruitment and retention in the south-east. I have undertaken to meet them again in a few months' time to review whether we have made any progress under the communities plan, and what is being achieved on joint equity and key worker housing. I will continue to review that. It is also fair to say that the special priority payments are only now coming into effect. It will be interesting to see what impact they have in places such as Surrey, where we have lifted the cap from 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. I will also keep that matter under review.

I would like to say a few words about community support officers. I am pleased to say that in Surrey we funded 52 such officers last year. I also understand that there will be a further 11, making 63 altogether. That is a significant body of resource to help to tackle the antisocial behaviour that hon. Members have mentioned—I am aware that antisocial behaviour happens not only in inner-city communities. It happens, unfortunately, right across this country, and in some of our rural areas it is even more of a problem, especially when it is linked with excessive alcohol consumption and the intimidation and harassment that are sometimes associated with that. I am very aware of those issues and community support officers in particular can help on the antisocial behaviour agenda.

That is the case for a number of reasons. One is that such officers are in place all the time, as they do not get abstracted for other things such as major operations. That means that they are able to build relationships with local people, especially the young. Quite often, young people will have a different relationship with a community support officer from that with a fully warranted police officer. That is proving extremely successful.

I understand that Surrey has created a new post of youth community support officer. Again, that is very innovative. There are 11 of those officers—one for each basic command unit area in Surrey—each with a specific brief to work with young people. Preventing the crime and disorder in the first place is better for the young people and the communities involved. I shall be very interested indeed to look at the force's evaluation of those youth community support officers, because this idea is very exciting indeed.

Despite the initial misgivings about community support officers that I am sure hon. Members voiced when the Police Reform Act 2002 was considered, I would hope that they acknowledge that those officers are doing an extremely useful job right across the country.

Chris Grayling

Surely the Minister agrees that, as officers in my constituency have described to me, there are people who commit public order offences on a Friday or a Saturday night who are not arrested, simply because making those arrests would take the officers off the streets for several hours. As there are only a couple of cars in the neighbourhood, such offenders are effectively let off. Surely that situation, regardless of the presence of community support officers and regardless of those other initiatives, means that there is an enormous flaw at the heart of policing.

Ms Blears

I want to say two things to the hon. Gentleman about that. One involves policing the night-time economy—pubs and clubs—and one involves utilising police civilian staff, but they have a common thread, which is similar to the point that I made to the hon. Member for Reigate: when policing services are under pressure, people often come up with creative solutions that represent genuine progress. I shall give two examples.

Manchester has a project named Manchester city centre safe. There was a similar problem in Manchester, as there were only 20 police officers to patrol the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights, which was completely insufficient to deal with the problems that arose. A partnership group involving the local authority, the pubs and clubs, the bars and the bus company has been created. They are all wired up to the same police net and they are guaranteed a response from the police officers within a couple of minutes.

That means that the door supervisors, the bar managers and what are called bus loaders from the bus company—all the sober, responsible adults—are out on the street, all in uniform and all highly visible. Instead of there being 20 police officers to police the city centre on Fridays and Saturdays, we have a skills-mix work force of 100 people who are able to ensure that the city centre is a safe and good place for thousands of people to visit. They can have a good time and get home safely. That is about working smarter, and it has been achieved without an extra penny of police expenditure because they have drawn in all the people who are, as it were, community protection workers. That covers a much wider base than simply the narrow police family.

The second issue is officers being off the streets because they are dealing with paperwork. That is a genuine complaint from many police officers, although I am told that we have got rid of 5,000 forms so far. Under the Police Reform Act, we introduced four new categories of worker: detection, investigating, custody and escort officers. Again, those people would not necessarily have to be fully warranted police officers, but they could do some custody work in terms of processing as well as escort work in terms of taking prisoners to and from different places.

In one pilot scheme, civilian officers under the supervision of a sergeant are doing the escort duties in a rural area where it normally takes for ever to get people to and from detention. About 1,100 police days have been saved in the work that they have been doing over the past 12 months. That is a real success story for people in the service such as those in Surrey, who are prepared to think differently about policing. Trying to think in that way represents the future of our reform programme.

As has been pointed out, I used to be a health Minister, and as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell will know, the skill mix in the health service has been accepted for a long time. Nurses now do things that only doctors used to do, and GPs do things that only consultants used to do. The agenda is the same in the police service.

Let me say something about Surrey's crime figures. I acknowledge that people are entitled to a minimum level of policing wherever they live, and Members have made a case for national standards rather than locality policing, but it should be noted that recorded crime in Surrey is about half the average in the rest of the country. There are nine burglaries per 1,000 of the population compared with an average of 17 in the rest of the country, and eight cases of violence against the person compared with an average of 16 in the rest of the country—which means that Surrey's figure is well below those in high-crime areas. There are fewer vehicle crimes in Surrey, and there is one robbery per 1,000 of the population compared with a national average of two—admittedly a small figure in itself.

I am not suggesting that Surrey is safe and therefore does not need policing—it clearly does need policing, as does the rest of the country—but we should see the figures in perspective. They are about half the national average. The top 40 crime and disorder reduction partnerships show much larger figures. People living in those communities can also legitimately expect to live in as much safety as possible. That is why we are trying to achieve convergence between forces' performance, so that the worst performers attain the standards of the best.

Mr. Wilshire

Depriving Surrey of money will cause the crime figures to rise. Presumably the aim of convergence is to raise Surrey's crime figures to the national average. The Minister seems to be saying that because the figures are low, Surrey must not need the money. Crime is rising, and perhaps when it has risen enough the Government will relent.

Ms Blears

I was trying to make a reasonable, sensible point, unlike the hon. Gentleman.

There has been an application for special grant, and only £0.3 million has been paid. There is a general agreement with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities that in the event of a special event or a big investigation, the police force involved normally pays 1 per cent. of its budget, although a small force would pay less. In Surrey's case the amount would be £1.49 million, but I understand that it has made another application, and we are considering its request. I will undertake to consider it personally in the light of the work that the force can do.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley asked about the future reform programme, and wanted to know whether we could find space in the national policing plan and national standards for more local determination of what the emphasis should be. As he probably knows, a couple of weeks ago we issued a major consultation document entitled "Policing: Building Safer Communities Together". We are open to consultation for the next three months on how we can make the police more connected to local communities in terms of both accountability and deciding what their work should be, while retaining a national framework and national standards to ensure that people throughout the country are entitled to decent policing levels. The last thing we want is postcode policing; after all, we have managed to end postcode health services.

We are also interested in exploring the earned-autonomy agenda as we did in the case of the NHS, and the possibility of a lighter touch in the inspection and auditing of forces that are performing well. However, I have been quite surprised since I took on this post by the dearth of data in the police service. For years and years, the police service has not had any national framework or national structure. It is crucial that a performance management system is properly embedded in our police service, so that we can drive up performance throughout the country. I genuinely think that, unless we have the data and some targets, we will not see reductions similar to those that we have seen since 1997 in the rate of vehicle crime and in burglary. Robberies have gone down by 17 per cent. in the past couple of years—there have been 17,000 fewer victims of robbery because we have helped forces to drive that agenda forward.

There is always room for debate about where the targets should be set, who should determine them and how we can get more local input, but I am convinced that having a proper performance management framework, as the American police do, which means that forces know what they are doing and where they can target their resources, is crucial to driving up standards. Simply having a free-for-all, where people are allowed to do exactly as they like, does not result in driving up standards in public services.

For my part, I am convinced that there is a role for Government. How big that role should be I am prepared to debate. I personally want to see a bigger role for local communities in setting priorities. I think it was the deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police who said to me the other day that probably the biggest issue for people in Tooting was prostitution on Tooting common. He went on to say that he could find little head room in the national policing plan to deal with such an issue, but that if he failed to do so local people would not feel they were being properly policed and supported. I shall bear that genuine point in mind when we look at getting the balance right between devising a national framework and national standards and encouraging as much local devolution as we possibly can, not just at force level but beyond that to basic command unit level and beyond that to neighbourhood level. We want people to feel that they have a real stake in what happens in their community, in their street, in their neighbourhood and in their local park and that they feel that the police are meeting the priorities that they set.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to participate in the debate. Hon. Members have raised some important issues. I hope that they are satisfied that we are looking carefully at the funding decisions before the provisional settlement is made, and that we will try to make our decisions on as fair and transparent a basis as possible. It is vital, particularly in relation to funding, that everyone can see how those decisions are reached, and that they are made on rational grounds to try to reflect policing needs in communities, while also taking into account the fact that everyone is entitled to decent policing. People pay their taxes. They are entitled to public services and we shall ensure that they get them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Ten o'clock.