HC Deb 27 October 2003 vol 412 cc13-5
10. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What his policy is on limiting police authority council tax increases. [134167]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart)

The use of reserve capping powers in England is a matter for the Deputy Prime Minister. We are clear about the fact that the trend in council tax rises is not sustainable, which is why the Government have announced that, if necessary, we may use our capping powers in 2004–05.

We hope that capping will not be necessary for any police authority. The public rightly expect continued improvement in policing services. I expect police authorities to set budgets next year that ensure further improvements without placing excessive burdens on the local taxpayer.

Mr. Heath

That was an exercise in wishful thinking if I ever heard one. The police authorities themselves estimate that next year the average council tax increase will be 15 per cent. just so that they can stand still—and that comes on top of the 24.5 per cent. actual average increase last year.

The Minister cannot have it both ways. Is it her policy that there should be unacceptable increases in council tax, or is it her policy that there should be unacceptable reductions in police numbers?

Fiona Mactaggart

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman wants the rates to be capped.

Central Government have substantially increased the resources available for policing. There has been a 30 per cent. increase since 1999–2000—an 18 per cent. increase in real terms. There has also been a substantial increase in the local contribution, partly because local communities have expected and demanded more policing. Moreover, the Government have delivered more police officers on our streets: there have been 155 extra officers in Avon and Somerset in the last few months alone.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Along with other Lancashire Members, I met representatives of Lancashire police force on Friday. While welcoming all that the Government have done in so many respects over the past few years, they gave us a blueprint of what they believe Lancashire policing needs in the years ahead. It would mean a massive increase in the police budget.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with financing the police by means of council tax is that people tend to look at the total tax demand and the overall increase? In my area there are three tiers: the police authority, Lancashire county council and Burnley district council. The gearing of the tax was worked out following the Ribble Valley by-election—which Labour lost many years ago—to replace the poll tax, and has resulted in an unfair system of taxation.

Fiona Mactaggart

My hon. Friend is right. As he will recall from his experience as a local authority leader, it behoves an administration to put the best possible case for extra resources, and I am sure that that is what his local police force has done. He is also right to point to the consequences of gearing, whereby an extra 1 per cent. on the council precept for police spending requires a 4 per cent. increase in the amount charged to the local citizen. That system was introduced by the Conservative party, and the citizens of my hon. Friend's constituency are still suffering as a result.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Is not one of the factors pushing up the police element of the council tax, especially in the south of England, the difficulty of recruiting and retaining officers? Is that not made even more difficult when officers are poached by forces in lower-cost areas or by the Met? I know that the Minister took an interest in this matter in her former incarnation. What thought has she given to a system of transfer fee payments, whereby the Thames Valley force and others in the south of England could at least recoup some of the cost of training those officers?

Fiona Mactaggart

The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a constituency Member, I am concerned about that. As a result of my concern, and concern expressed by chief constables in the south-east, additional allowances of £2,000 were introduced for Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Thames Valley for officers recruited after the 1994 change in the payment system, and allowances of £1,000 for those in Bedfordshire, Hampshire and Sussex. That is one way of helping authorities to recruit and retain officers. We have also established the 30-plus scheme to encourage officers to stay on so that forces can retain experienced members.

We do not intend to pursue the hon. Gentleman's proposal on transfer fees, but we will work with police forces to help them deal with recruitment and retention issues. That has already proved successful, which is why we now have record numbers of police officers in forces throughout the country.