HC Deb 05 November 2003 vol 412 cc318-25WH 3.30 pm
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Dorset police covers an area of over 1,000 square miles and serves a population of nearly 700,000. Half of the populations live in the conurbation of Poole and Bournemouth, and the remaining 50 per cent. of the constituency is predominantly rural in character; a very good mix. The specific features of the county are important in relation to how the police service is delivered, and the way in which it is financed. Dorset is an area with high house prices—it is such a lovely place to live—but where wages are relatively low. That results in Dorset not qualifying for the area cost adjustment, but presents major problems for recruitment and retention of staff throughout the public sector.

Dorset has almost 50 per cent. more residents over the age of 65 than the national average would predict, resulting in a high proportion of households on fixed or restricted incomes being faced with increasing tax demands to maintain the same level of service. Feelings are running very high in the county and I am sure that high overall council tax increases will provoke widespread demonstrations next year.

Within the conurbation of Poole and Bournemouth a further difficulty arises. Bournemouth is increasingly becoming a major south coast venue, attracting a large influx of nighttime visitors. It now has in excess of 30,000 licensed drinking spaces available each night, creating operational policing pressures more akin to those in metropolitan areas. There is a reflection within the formula to take account of visitors, but it assumes that the visitors share the same characteristics as the resident population. That is not the case. The fact that my daughter and her friends come down from London possibly contributes to that view, but Bournemouth is a very attractive place to come for the weekend.

Despite the diverse micro-economy and the pressures that brings, Dorset police prides itself on being innovative and providing a high-quality and efficient service to the people of Dorset. There are many ways in which that is clearly demonstrated, not least in the inspection process by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which regularly cites Dorset as an example of good practice. The annual achievement of 2 per cent. efficiency gains symbolises the rigorous procedures the force employs in all its activities and its own desire continually to improve.

More than 90 per cent. of the force's officers work directly on front-line policing. It has improved and exceeded its targets in responding to emergency calls for assistance from the public in both rural and urban areas, but—here is the big but—Dorset police force is the sixth lowest spending police force in the country yet it receives the second lowest amount of Government support. Despite its low expenditure the effect of the low funding results in the residents of Dorset having to pay the fourth highest council tax per head in the country.

I am sure that the Minister will appreciate the mixed messages that the residents of Dorset are receiving. We have a highly efficient and effective police force within the existing funding constraints, but we are faced with one of the highest taxes in the country. That makes local accountability very difficult. When people are asked to pay more, they naturally ask, "Why don't I ever see a police officer on the beat?"

To be fair, Dorset police now has 1,422 police officers, an increase of 10 per cent. over the last 10 years. That is very good news. However, a local capability assessment has identified a shortfall of officers of approximately 200. I frequently request extra support in local communities to tackle low-level antisocial behaviour. As Dorset is a relatively safe place, much greater use could be made of community support officers and accredited safety officers, whose mere presence would contribute towards people feeling safer. Community support officers are employed in the west of the county only and funding is inadequate to expand the scheme. There are just six CSOs in Dorset. Neighbourhood warden schemes financed by the Government are very limited in number and funding has not been secured for the future.

The Dorset police force prides itself on its consistent and positive approach to achieving national targets and, through its extensive programme of consultation, to accommodating local requirements. However, the situation is becoming increasingly difficult and could lead to significant issues for members of the police authority who must determine how to address the future.

Local consultation has demonstrated strong support for the provision of community beat officers and a desire that such individuals should not be abstracted to other activities, a feeling that is shared across the country. However, the difficulty faced by the force is that with insufficient resources and manpower it cannot fulfil those local priorities as well as achieve all the national targets; hence, the local dissatisfaction that I mentioned earlier. I fear that matters will get worse and hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance this afternoon.

Changes in the Government grant last year led to a reduction in central funding. Dorset received the minimum increase, which was wholly inadequate to meet the pressures of police reform, pensions and increased national insurance.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

May I assure the hon. Lady that all her Dorset colleagues, irrespective of politics, fully support the powerful case that she is making for our constituents?

Mrs. Brooke

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support.

The result of all the pressures was a double figure increase in council tax last year just to maintain existing services. If the authority were to cut its budget to keep to an inflation-only increase next year, it could face a cut in officer numbers of more than 100, which represents 7 per cent. of the force establishment. Dorset residents want more police, not fewer, and they want a reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour. To maintain the present service, Dorset faces a funding gap of £6.5 million on a budget of nearly £100 million. Without a significant increase in central support, that would result in a council tax increase of more than 20 per cent. Dorset residents are reaching the point where they are not prepared to pay more for less.

As one of the smaller forces in the country, Dorset police is able to react swiftly, re-deploy resources efficiently and to take on and implement innovative solutions that can then be used as an example to the rest of the country. However, as a small force, it finds itself unduly exposed to the current unique funding mechanism for police pensions. A move to direct national funding could address concerns about the current balance of funding review. That would make an enormous difference, particularly for a small authority. Such a move would also produce efficiency savings in administration and reduce perversities in the movement of officers between forces; another issue for those who live in a very nice part of the country, as the Minister will recognise. The public would then see that they were paying for the current service and not the pensions of former officers.

I would not want to see the Dorset police authority, which is a smaller authority, abolished. I truly believe in local policing. It is right to deal with some matters nationally, and the continued drive by the Home Office to identify and deliver national solutions to police information requirements through the identification and procurement of IT systems is recognised as the right way forward for the police service. However, the ability to take on national systems becomes increasingly difficult when the cost must be met by local taxpayers.

Local consultation has identified a specific problem in Dorset and I suspect that the Minister has received quite a lot of representations in relation to the road safety camera project. I wholeheartedly support road safety, speed reduction and saving lives. However, at a local level there is great opposition to the scheme because, according to the letters that I receive, the cameras are on roads that are safe. Opposition is difficult to deflect because the public does not entirely know how the scheme is funded. In the current year, the Dorset road safety camera project will return more than £1 million to the Treasury, money that could and should be invested in local initiatives to improve road safety in its widest context. I applaud the project, but the financing should be managed to support Dorset.

Looking to the future, Dorset pledges to work with the region, the country and the Home Office to ensure that it delivers the national and local agenda. Dorset welcomes initiatives and flexibility within the financial framework. The authority welcomes the prudential code on capital because it will enable better and more strategic long-term planning of both its capital assets and its long-term capital plan. However, even within that new flexibility there has been no announcement to the Dorset police authority on how future capital support will be provided under the new system.

The application of the cost floor has been essential for Dorset to continue to maintain its current level of service but, as yet, there is no indication of what that floor will be in future years or what tapering may be applied to it, thus creating great difficulties in medium-term planning given the tightness of funds in Dorset.

A great deal of work is being undertaken nationally by the police service and by the Government, which will address some of my concerns. However, to meet the immediate needs of Dorset, I should like some assurance on the following points. First, will the total level of Government support to cover general, specific and capital grant be maintained with at least an inflationary increase next year? Secondly, could the rules relating to the road safety camera project be relaxed to enable a greater proportion of the income to be invested locally in sensible schemes? Thirdly, will there be a review of future funding to address the issue of police pensions and can we expect some answers on that shortly? Fourthly, will the continued drive to national information systems be fully funded?

Fifthly—this is very important for Dorset—will the rural police grant be continued? Dorset residents were alarmed to read in the The Sunday Times last week: The redistribution of police money marks part of a wider government effort quietly to move central government resources away from wealthier, predominantly southern areas to poorer neighbourhoods in northern England, Wales and Scotland. I do not wish to deprive other areas of funding, but not at a cost to Dorset. Will the Minister comment on the truth of that statement in The Sunday Times?.

This year all police authorities seem to have had concerns about the forthcoming financial settlement, but Dorset—with its historically low funding and a shortage of money to deliver local policing priorities—is, justifiably, particularly worried about the future. Residents of Dorset are reaching the point where they are not prepared to pay more for less. What reassurance can the Minister give to the Dorset police authority and the residents of Dorset on the issues that I have raised this afternoon?

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

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) on obtaining this important debate on police funding for Dorset. She has made some important representations and I hope that I can reassure her on some of the points that she has raised. However, I have to be a little tantalising, because later this month I shall make an announcement on the 2004–05 provisional police funding settlement. I am not in a position to go into a lot of detail today, but I hope that I can give the hon. Lady a broad flavour of what the factors will be in preparing the settlement.

There are currently inescapable pressures on precepts. I receive representations from a range of police authorities that are concerned about the effects on their communities. They are also concerned about the possibility of police authority capping, so the Home Secretary has been keen to emphasise that we want authorities to act responsibly when they set their budgets. We also want them to lock in some of the improvements that they have made in recent years, because we are delighted that authorities have been prepared to go that extra mile and get extra resources to extra officers.

Communities appreciate the higher visibility policing that we have now, but authorities must make well-justified cases for any improvements to their communities and ensure that they have broad public support for the budgets that they set. I remind the hon. Lady that in the last two years authorities have set budgets well in excess of what they have needed to stand still. We are pleased about that, because it has meant more resources going to the police service. There has been considerable growth out there in police authorities over the last few years, with central Government expenditure increasing by 30 per cent. to support it.

Mrs. Brooke

Even though the Minister cannot say anything precisely about the settlement, will she comment on whether there will be capping on the police part of the council tax?

Ms Blears

As the hon. Lady knows, the question of whether local authorities will be capped is a matter for my colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, not the Home Office. I am sure that she also knows that discussions are taking place to ensure that we reach a balanced position on local authorities generally and on the pressures on police authorities. Any decisions on capping, however, are a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which has been clear that there will certainly not be universal capping but that a close eye will be kept on the increases.

Last year's increases in some places—not the hon. Lady's constituency—were in the order of 70 per cent. and 75 per cent., which are not sustainable in the longer-term. Dorset police, however, increased its budget last year to £95.6 million, which was an increase of £7.7 million, or 8.8 per cent., which was broadly in line with police authorities generally. The precept was increased by 19.2 per cent., which sounds like a large percentage increase but was actually 38p a week; we must get things in perspective. Although the percentages are large, the sums themselves are fairly modest and appropriate to the improvements that people have seen in policing on their streets.

3.47 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.3 pm

On resuming—

Ms Blears

I am delighted to resume the debate. I was just about to outline Dorset's funding and budget, but first I wanted to say a word about the funding formula. The formula was updated last year and the new formula had buy-in and agreement from all parties in the tripartite structure for policing. I note what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said about issues still being outstanding. There is scope for improvement in the formula but a period of stability this year is probably in our best interests. In future we will examine with the policing community how we can best develop grant mechanisms to meet the needs of contemporary policing. This is an ongoing debate. I want to ensure that the new funding formula arrangements support the reform and modernisation process on which we have embarked and which are moving on apace.

The hon. Lady also mentioned specific grants. Dorset continues to benefit from our targeted initiatives. It received a further £2.31 million from the crime fighting fund, £0.16 million for Airwave and £0.44 million from the rural policing fund. The authority also receives £470,000 for basic command unit funding; £490,000 for DNA—for forensic sciences; and £380,000 in special priority payments.

There has been some concern among police authorities about the amount of grant provided in that specific way. However, virtually all the specific grants are for things that the police service has told us that it wants to see happen. In the past, money has been set aside to improve policing. Under the previous Conservative Administration, money was provided for an extra 5,000 officers, but not one of them was put in place, because police authorities chose to spend that money on other areas. We are therefore concerned to ensure that the crime-fighting fund is spent on those additional officers, who the hon. Lady has been generous enough to acknowledge have made a real difference to the visibility of policing in her area.

By targeting our grant, we can overcome some of the necessary imprecision in general grant figures. Using specific grants enables us to target funds where they are needed and to get real results on the ground. I realise that some forces are concerned about the long-term nature of specific grants and that that makes it difficult for them to plan ahead. I want to ensure that in all our specific grants we take into account the issue of long-term funding and sustainability.

I shall comment briefly on the rural policing fund, which is a big issue for the hon. Lady's constituency. As I said, Dorset's share of the 2003–04 fund was £440,000. As part of the overall changes to policing grant formulae in 2002, we considered whether to put the rural policing grant into the general grant. At that time, police authorities were concerned that that would leave a number of rural forces with less grant than before. We agreed that that outcome would have been counterproductive, and so we did not make that change. I assure the hon. Lady that that conclusion stands, and that the rural policing grant will continue.

Police authorities do not have to bid for the rural grant—it is allocated on the basis of a sparsity formula—but they do report on what they are doing with the grant. In the police force in the hon. Lady's area, they will be improving analysis of rural crime trends, considering the provision of community contact vehicles to ensure that the police are out and about in the rural areas, and supporting a project to try to improve call handling, which should improve performance on the ground.

The hon. Lady raised the important issue of pensions, which affects forces throughout the country, particularly when peaks of retirement occur and police authorities are called on to fund those peaks in pension requirements. As the hon. Lady said, that can be a real drain on a small force. I assure her that we are actively reviewing the pensions issue to see whether, in future, we can provide a system that will relieve some of the pressure on police authorities.

Reasonable provision is made in the annual formula funding settlements for the overall cost, and most forces have enough provision to cover net pension costs—certainly when they can call on pension reserves. However, we are now collecting new data to obtain up-to-date information on the real costs.

The current arrangements do not give a funded scheme that would provide for projected costs in the future to be covered by investing standard annual contributions from the employer as well as the employee. If we were to establish a fully funded scheme now, it would be prohibitively expensive—we could not afford to do that. We are looking at the feasibility of a notionally funded scheme for police pensions, under which the officers' employee contributions plus a new employer's contribution could be topped up as necessary by central Government to meet the audited pensions bill. We would aim to smooth out the peaks and troughs of retirements that are often faced by the police authorities. When we issue details of the pensions review, the hon. Lady, and other hon. Members, will be pleased with some of the proposals that it will contain.

I have already had discussions with the Police Superintendents Association, the Police Federation, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities on the question of pensions. The issue is under active consideration.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of road safety income. I understand that all the income from fixed-penalty notices is invested locally in road safety schemes, and is ring-fenced for that. I advise the hon. Lady to find out from Dorset police what they are doing with that income and how it is being reinvested. We are keen that road-safety schemes and speed cameras are targeted at those areas where there are casualties, so that we can reduce the number of deaths and injuries on our roads. There are far too many road accidents. Speed cameras can make a difference, but they should be targeted properly in the areas in which they can have the greatest effect.

The hon. Lady also talked about community policing; clearly a topical issue in view of the consultation document launched by the Home Secretary yesterday on the long-term future of the police service and what it might look like in 10 or 15 years. We are determined to ensure that local neighbourhood community policing is at the heart of what we do and that the officers are valued and properly rewarded. We also want to ensure that the job of community beat manager is much appreciated by the force as well as by the local community, and that people will want to do it in the long term.

The hon. Lady is right that neighbourhood policing cannot function where officers are continually abstracted to do other duties. Increasingly, forces are allocating a specific number of officers in a community for the long term. That means that they can build relationships with local people and can be much more effective in gaining intelligence and information from the community, which means that they can do their job in the best possible way. Getting local community policing right is at the heart of our proposals, as is improving the connection between local people and their police service, examining accountability mechanisms, ensuring that local people have a greater say in setting priorities and in challenging us, as national politicians, to let devolution take root in local areas.

The hon. Lady also raised the important matter—the consultation document addresses it—of how we get the structure of forces right to ensure that they have sufficient capacity to cope with serious and organised crime. There is no point simply getting local community policing right unless forces have the resilience to tackle crimes, which increasingly threaten our communities, and some of the new technology that criminals are using.

That raises other questions. We should not reorganise for the sake of reorganising, but how can we ensure that forces, especially small ones, can combat organised and serious crime? They may be able to do so by collaborating with their neighbours, by specialising in particular areas or by amalgamating. if that is what they want to do. We must ensure that every level of policing has the best possible structure so that we can deliver the right equipment and the right staff, and can drive up performance.

I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that the performance of the force in her constituency is extremely good. In the year to March 2003 in Dorset, burglary had fallen by 7 per cent., drug offences by 1 per cent., violent crime was two thirds of the national average, the incidences of burglary in a dwelling were half the national average, and the incidences of theft of a vehicle were roughly half the national average. Dorset is a safe place to live. I appreciate that the hon. Lady is committed to ensuring that Dorset still receives the appropriate level of policing and support. She made a very good case for her local area, but it is important to ensure that the country's resources are also directed to the areas of greatest need, as well as providing a decent amount of support for policing throughout the country.

That is why we want a framework of national standards, within which there is as much devolution as possible. My party does not simply advocate a free-for-all and that everything should be delegated to the local area, but we do see a role for national standards that give everyone in the country the right to a certain standard of policing and police performance; a key difference between the approaches of the political parties to some of the complex issues that are taxing us at the moment.

I am glad to be able to reassure the hon. Lady, but she will have to wait a little longer for the detail of the settlement, which will be published later this month. I congratulate her on speaking for members of her community and on ensuring that their voices are heard in this Chamber, which is the appropriate thing to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), I must tell hon. Members that although I do not believe that there will be a Division during the next debate, I will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes if there is.