HC Deb 22 October 2003 vol 411 cc284-306WH

2 pm

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

I welcome this opportunity to raise serious concerns about the funding situation facing Norfolk police, and I want to make it clear from the start that Norfolk MPs of all three parties have presented a united front in arguing the case for a fairer deal for Norfolk. I am pleased to see here the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), and for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright), and I know that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) would have been here, but she is away from Westminster today.

Norfolk is a widely dispersed rural county, and that presents policing problems. The Minister will be aware of a widespread perception in rural Norfolk, and in comparable areas, that people are unprotected and vulnerable. Crime rates might be relatively low, but fear of crime is very real. Norfolk police have done what they can with the resources that are available to them to maximise their presence. They have introduced three mobile police stations that tour rural areas and stop off in village centres. However, the fact remains that Norfolk has the fourth lowest ratio of police officers to population in the country.

I shall describe the financial pressures with which the police authority has to grapple. Norfolk police authority inherited in 1995 a force that was seriously under-resourced as a result of many years of underfunding. There were insufficient support staff; it was one of the few forces with no information and communications technology infrastructure—essential for effective policing, I am sure we all agree—and there had been little investment in other technology and equipment, or in the estate. Staff were working from poorly maintained and inappropriate buildings, and they had no dedicated air support unit, which is particularly important in a geographical area that is as large as Norfolk.

That was the situation in 1995. What has happened since then? It is important to acknowledge that there has been a significant increase in financing for Norfolk police. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy confirms that there has been a 21 3per cent. increase between 1995–96 and 2002–03—from £86 million to £104 million. I welcome that. However, I have serious concerns about how some of that money is spent. My main case is that the increase in the number of police officers that we have achieved should not be put at risk. Indeed, the force wants to see the number of officers increase still further. The authority has undertaken a review, and it has concluded that the minimum police officer establishment in Norfolk should be 1,800. We currently have about 1,500, and there is no hope of getting anywhere near the total that the authority believes is needed.

I also want the police authority to be in a position to complete the development of the ICT infrastructure. There are several other aspirations, including full-time air support coverage. Those objectives must be achieved without putting a still heavier burden on those on low incomes, including many pensioners.

That brings me to the current financial situation. As things stand, it looks as though the average budget increase that local forces are likely to receive for 2004–05 is 3.3 per cent. However, it is estimated that, simply to stand still, forces will require a 6 per cent. increase in funding. I understand that that comprises about 3 per cent. for pay and price increases, 1.5 per cent. for police pension costs and another 1.5 per cent. for information and communications technology, forensic science and other technology costs. The problem is that for every 1 per cent. shortfall in police force budgets, it is necessary to increase the council tax precept by some 4 per cent.

Norfolk is therefore facing a likely increase in the police precept of around 15 per cent. That comes on top of last year's increase of 21.5 per cent. That situation is not unique; the Association of Police Authorities is so concerned about the national situation that it has launched its own campaign. Our impression is that the Home Secretary shares these concerns. To some extent this debate is an opportunity to strengthen the Home Secretary's hand in his negotiations with the Treasury.

The Government should be in no doubt that the funding situation is dire. If nothing changes, the prospect is of totally unacceptable increases in council tax or the Government-imposed capping of increases, which could lead to painful and damaging cuts in frontline services. The Association of Chief Police Officers has warned of possible reversals in civilianisation programmes and a loss of some civilian staff, which would result in police officers having to replace them and losing their presence on the front line.

The burden on the Norfolk council tax payers has shifted over the past few years. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy has produced figures that show a dramatic increase in the extent to which council tax funds the Norfolk police. Funding from the council tax—a heavily regressive tax—has increased by 104 per cent. from 1995–96 to the current year. In 1995–96, just over £13.5 million of the Norfolk police budget came from the council tax, whereas the figure is now more than £27.6 million. There has also been a steady decline in the Home Office contribution as a proportion of the total funding of the Norfolk police authority. The proportion of council tax has inevitably had to increase to offset that. In Norfolk over that eight-year period, it has increased from 15.5 per cent. of total financing to 26.5 per cent.—a steeper increase than the average for other non-metropolitan police forces in England.

There is a growing recognition that the council tax has reached the limits of public acceptability—a view shared by the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire. A Government who purport to believe in progressive taxation can no longer justify the shift to such a regressive system of taxation to finance local services, including the police. Pensioner households on low fixed incomes are bearing the brunt of financing our police forces and other local services.

There is a sense of gross injustice in my constituency of North Norfolk, which has one of the highest proportions of pensioners anywhere in the country. My mailbag—I am sure that other hon. Members' mailbags are no different—shows the strength of feeling among local people. Until the Government accept the case for the abolition of the council tax and its replacement with a fairer and more progressive system, they must provide sufficient support.

There is also a widespread view that bureaucracy has burgeoned, which takes money away from policing. The APA points out that in 1995–96 there were only two sources of ring-fenced grants, whereas now there are a staggering 28, which include funding for police community support officers, the Airwave police radio project, the street crime initiative and the crime-fighting fund for additional officers. Those are all good, but the funding is ring-fenced. Most of those initiatives involved a bidding process, which can be enormously time-consuming. It ties up authority and force staff in unproductive work, and fails to allow police authorities, in Norfolk and elsewhere in the country, to determine their own local priorities and to decide where they want to spend the money to meet local needs. A simplification of the funding system is surely long overdue.

There has been a substantial increase in the extent to which performance is measured and monitored locally, and that is then interpreted nationally. I have been told by an authoritative source that the Home Office has now increased the number of civil servants dealing with its own bureaucracy, enforcement and micro-management to nearly 10,000. That is twice the number of extra officers on the front line.

In Norfolk, there appear to be about 83 staff who might be defined as unproductive. That excludes staff working for the police authority; it consists of those working on the bureaucratic burdens that I have described. Measuring performance is important, but it seems that the balance is horribly wrong. Another result of centralised control is that Home Office rules sometimes get in the way of pragmatic, practical solutions.

For example, Norfolk desperately wants and needs full-time coverage for air support. I understand that Home Office rules provide for a possible 50 per cent. of the funding for a new helicopter. The problem is that Norfolk police authority cannot afford the other 50 per cent. from its budget, which is already under intense strain, so it came up with a practical solution. The authority planned to purchase a second-hand helicopter for half the price so that the Home Office would pay for it. That would have involved no extra cost to the Home Office and Norfolk would have got its helicopter. However, that is not allowed under the rules; funding is permitted only at the 50 per cent. level.

What about a grant to allow the force to extend the rental agreement with the current provider? That would be an excellent example of public-private partnership in action, but Norfolk police authority tells us that that is not permitted under the rules either. Its efforts to think outside the box and to come up with new ways of sorting out the problem were thwarted by over-restrictive Home Office rules. Would the Minister agree to look into that, and to get back to us?

One other problem faces Norfolk police authority. It has relatively few capital assets. The main police station in Norwich, on Bethel Street, is occupied on a licence from the city council. That goes back to the local government re-organisation in 1974. However, the consequences of the arrangements fixed in 1974 continue to hold back the authority.

Many other forces have been able either to sell assets to finance investments, such as information and communications technology, or to use assets as collateral to borrow money. Norfolk cannot do that. The authority surveyed 39 other police authorities and found that Norfolk had the 10th lowest stock of assets. That means that one alternative route for funding investment is not open to it. Can the Minister investigate that? Could an authority's level of assets not be taken into account in determining Home Office grants to local police authorities? It clearly constrains how they are able to raise money for local investment.

I have raised a number of issues and I hope that the Minister will respond constructively. We are confronting the issue on an all-party basis. We want the best for Norfolk police authority, and for Norfolk policing. We know that there is enormous pressure from the authority and local people for a good level of policing in our county. We are held back at the moment by over-restrictive rules and unfairness in the allocation of money to authorities. In our view, Norfolk is not getting a fair deal.

2.13 pm
Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing the debate. The hon. Gentleman has spoken well. I am sure that many of the facts, figures and issues will be repeated in the debate.

It is important that we in Norfolk build on the successful partnership that has been developed between the Government and Norfolk police authority in a clear and transparent way. That is certainly true with regard to the potential shortfalls for 2004–05 that were outlined by the Norfolk police authority. Although I differ from my Norfolk colleagues on many issues surrounding the unprecedented policing standards achieved over the past five years, which were achieved through investment in the Norfolk police constabulary and the hard work of the force, I agree with their call for the funding gap faced by the constabulary to be closed as quickly as possible.

The gap, which is primarily the result of an increase in the cost of pay and pensions, represents a threat to the continued increase in standards that we have come to expect from the force. It must be made clear as soon as possible whether the additional resources to close that funding shortfall, which are estimated at about 6 per cent., will come from the Government or from increased council tax contributions. A reduction in force effectiveness by making cuts to front-line services—a radical way of addressing the funding gap—is an unacceptable third alternative that should be avoided at all costs, because it could hamper the good partnership that the Norfolk constabulary and the Government have forged in bringing safety and security to our county.

With regard to safety from criminal activity in Norfolk, Sue Howl, crime reduction director for the eastern region, welcomed the 2003 figures on crime in the east. She said: It is reassuring that this region is still one of the safest places to live and work, and that across the board we fare well. That however does not make us complacent and we are working hard alongside the police forces and local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to make sure people are—and crucially feel—safer in their own homes. In line with a broader national initiative backed by the Home Office, the force is setting tough targets on tackling domestic violence, and it is investing in order to raise the numbers of arrests made in cases of domestic violence to 60 per cent. in 2003–04.

The Department for Work and Pensions, the Pension Service, the immigration service, Norwich and district citizens advice bureau, the Norfolk fire service and the First bus company have worked in partnership to establish a mobile bus service to help to address rural concerns in the county. By fielding various inquiries and visiting 40 locations every month, the bus provides a vital link to our communities. It shows how integrated partnership between the Government and the Norfolk constabulary can go to the heart of our community.

Funding of the Norfolk family protection unit has been an essential strategy of the Norfolk constabulary. In line with new legislation brought in by the Home Office in 2002, new victim focused supporting witness suites are to be introduced throughout the county. The county's intention to invest in those centres, and in police premises in general, received another boost with a recent Government announcement that as well as the 4 per cent. funding increase, which is inclusive of centrally spent funds and ring-fenced monies that the Norfolk constabulary will gain this year, the constabulary can also submit two bids with a maximum capital grant of £500,000 each, as part of the premises improvement fund. For the second year, the fund is channelling an additional £20 million to forces throughout England and Wales.

Operation Harrier is another example of money well spent on the Norfolk constabulary. More than 200 arrests were made during the first month of an operation to deal with those who perpetrate drug, theft, burglary and other offence. The Norfolk constabulary is prepared to respond toughly to criminal activity. That operation is coupled with community partnerships to deal with criminals.

When examining how funding has improved Norfolk's crime fighting figures in general, we have to remember the positive achievements that I have already outlined, and realise that changes in the reporting of crime statistics make comparison with previous years impossible. Despite those changes, which led to higher crime rates being officially recorded, the figures show that Norfolk suffered only a marginal increase in the reporting of burglary and vehicle crimes. The increase of 4.5 per cent. in burglary and 9.6 per cent. in vehicle crime is not a true reflection of the increases in relation to past years, and I believe that in 2004 the rigorous targets set by the Norfolk constabulary in conjunction with the Home Office will be more than met.

However, I am concerned about the increase in violent crime, because although the rise of around 75 per cent. this year was largely due to the change in reporting measures, part of it cannot be based on that. I am looking to the constabulary to find new and innovative ways of tackling the increasing problem in Norfolk.

The policing of Norfolk, backed by continued investment and support from the Government, includes new, fresh and innovative ways of tackling local issues in a community-centred way. In addition to what I have already outlined, the air support unit has assisted in more than 782 cases, and has directly assisted in more than 130 arrests. Ring-fenced funding for Airwave is bringing state-of-the-art technology to the battle against crime on the front line in Norfolk. In areas with fixed and mobile cameras, serious accidents have reduced by more than 50 per cent., indirectly saving the local health authority hospitals an estimated £4.6 million and providing another example of money well spent.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on that aspect, and will say something about directing resources into those initiatives. Those success stores should be built on through addressing the funding gap. That is what we are achieving through the investment and partnership that the Government have promoted over the past five years.

I want to show what increased central spending and strong joint Home Office and polio targets have meant for the Norfolk constabulary. The constabulary's annual report and policing plan summary of July 2003 stated: The year 2002/03 ended with the largest number of police officers Norfolk has ever seen. The Constabulary's target of 1,500 officers meant there would be another 26 officers to police our county in addition to the 46 extra officers of 2001/02. Not only was this achieved, the year actually ended with 1,505 officers. This is 5 over target and reflects the importance that the Police Authority, within the resources available, attaches to increasing officer numbers.

Additional resources were also provided in Norfolk for 12 community police support officers: funding for those officers totalled £136,000. They will be an excellent addition to the Norfolk constabulary in its fight against crime. It will bring more police on to our streets with the powers to arrest and detain people In Norfolk, and they will be greatly aided by the powers in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill.

In the past five years there has been continued investment in human resources, resulting from an overall increase in Government investment for the service, coupled with stronger legislation and higher standards in the fight against crime. In Norfolk, the combined total of the police grant, transitional grant, police standard spending assessment, SSA reduction grant, central support protection grant and capital financing SSA increased from £86.5 million in 2000–01 to £91.5 million in 2001–02—an increase of 5.8 per cent. The Home Secretary announced a further rise in the budget that local forces will be expected to receive in 2004–05, from an average 2.5 per cent. for this year to an estimated 3.3 per cent. next year.

That increase is part of the continued improvement in funding of local police authorities that Norfolk constabulary has benefited from since 1997. However, owing to pay and price increases of 3 per cent. and the rise in the cost of police pensions of 1.5 per cent., as well as a 1.5 per cent. increase for ICT, forensic and technology costs, a funding gap has emerged this year. Norfolk police will require a 6 per cent. increase to maintain their current structure and service without risking a loss in front-line services or increasing local council tax charges by around 14 or 15 per cent., which would be unacceptable.

In view of that, I ask the Government to look seriously into the potential funding shortfall, which is largely caused by pension and pay increases within the police force, and to decide whether the burden of the increase should be borne nationally by the Government or locally through an increase in council tax—I hope not the latter. The Government should state clearly whether capping powers would be enforced in relation to police forces that are attempting to close the deficit.

Through the clear and defined approach to the funding shortfall that the Association of Police Authorities has announced, the police will be able to continue the rapid movement towards increasing police standards and further driving down crime figures. With regard to ring-fenced funds, in the spirit of partnership that I have mentioned, there must be a true understanding of the need for local police forces to be flexible about community needs and for the Government to ensure that the priorities that they set to increase our safety and security are met in the most effective and economical way.

The increase in funding for Norfolk police authority of around 4 per cent. next year will be reduced to 2.5 per cent. after account has been taken of central costs and centrally ring-fenced funding for projects such as Airwave. Concern has grown about the relative merit of such ring-fenced initiatives. In my opinion, the right balance has been struck. As the annual report for 2003 stated: The current roll-out of our high-tech computer support systems is vital to the provision of information technology and underpins the delivery of information, applications and modern infrastructure facilities across the county. The Government want to ensure that that happens in Norfolk, providing mobile forces with access to information on the ground to fight crime more effectively. That will continue to be implemented.

I commend the Norfolk constabulary on its performance, and support its request that the funding shortfall that it has predicted for next year is adequately filled. That is in line with the Government's commitment over the past five years to better county police forces. Year on year, past neglect has resulted in shortfalls in funding and personnel. I certainly do not want us to return to those days of neglect, or for this issue to become a party political matter, but I am concerned that a true and practical consideration of the matter could be lost, despite the cross-party support that we have seen today.

We have moved on in Norfolk, thanks to the new partnership developed between the Government and the police. I do not want cross-party politics to hijack that partnership or to take away from any investment in the force. I refuse to have the campaign for better resources in Norfolk and Great Yarmouth hampered by prejudice.

I urge the Minister to give a clear response. How does she propose to make up the shortfall, and to ensure that the benefits that have been brought to the Norfolk constabulary in the past five years will not be forgotten?

2.25 pm
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on initiating this important debate.

Norfolk MPs may have a sense of déjà vu because we debated similar issues a year ago, not only on police funding, but on the local government finance settlement. We have not progressed very far in one year. Sadly, our pessimistic conclusions have become a reality, and we are here again, putting our case to the Minister.

Last year, local government funding was taken directly from the shire counties and redistributed to other areas. Whatever Ministers say, that is a fact, and one that is known by local Norfolk councils of all political background, and by local council tax payers. Alas, we face the prospect that that will be repeated this year. As two hon. Gentlemen have pointed out, central Government's grant for local policing is falling well short of the amount required to keep policing at a standstill position, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk put it.

Last year, the national gap was £162 million. This year, it is estimated to be £250 million. Last year, the average precept rise by authorities across the country was 25 per cent., which was, on average, slightly more than that in Norfolk. That was a great shock to our taxpayers. Nationally, the highest level was 76 per cent. According to the latest Home Office information, the average budget increase that police forces are likely to receive in the year 2004–05 will be 3.3 per cent. Authorities will be subject to a floor of 2.6 per cent. and a ceiling of 3.5 per cent.

I cannot emphasise enough that forces will require at least a 6 per cent. increase simply to achieve a standstill position. In Norfolk, a standstill position would entail a similar uplift in budget. Nationally, an average precept increase of 14 to 15 per cent. would be required to hold services at their current level. It is estimated that, for the Norfolk police authority, that would be about the same, or slightly higher, at 19 per cent.

Local government and police authorities, not only in Norfolk but nationally, are between a rock and a hard place. The Norfolk police authority is determined to protect front-line operational services, and to maintain the progress made since 1995 in officer numbers and resources, as the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) put it. However, it is aware that any significant increases in the precept or council tax will be opposed, particularly by pensioners. I am sure that the Minister is aware, from her own constituency, of how much anger there is.

I would like to hear from the Minister on the Government's policy on this issue. We hear a lot about joined-up government, but we seem to get conflicting messages on capping. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is on record as having threatened capping but, in a meeting attended by the Prime Minister, Ministers, chief constables and police authorities, the Home Secretary gave the impression that police authorities will not be capped. Who is correct: the Deputy Prime Minister or the Home Secretary? We need to get that clear today.

Those budgetary decisions will have a real impact on the police, the public and crime in our county. Norfolk is the second largest county in the United Kingdom, with a very long coastline. It has large urban areas such as Yarmouth, King's Lynn and Yarmouth, where there is social deprivation. There is also social deprivation in rural areas in mid-Norfolk, such as in my constituency. We have between 3 million and 5 million visitors and tourists to the county every year. Many of them—the overwhelming majority—are honest and law-abiding, but a minority are not, so we have enormous churning in our population.

We not only have local crime, but we are vulnerable to commuting criminals from the east midlands. If my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) is lucky enough to speak, he may comment on the repercussions of the case of his constituent Mr. Tony Martin. We also have criminals commuting from Essex and London. Fear of crime in rural areas is real, precisely because the police appear either not to be there at all or to be a long way away, which does not mean that they cannot respond, but that perception is very strong indeed.

As the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth put it, the Norfolk police authority and the chief constable are now successfully targeting crime. The previous chief constable, Ken Williams, put in motion many of the things that his successor, Andy Hayman, is now carrying out. Operation Harrier is but one high-profile operation to take the offensive against criminals. I had the pleasure of being at the police headquarters on 30 July for the launch of the Norfolk home watch association, which is an important, active part of police operations.

As the hon. Member for North Norfolk pointed out, we now have three mobile police stations, which I commend. They are working in my constituency and are an excellent example of the police showing their presence and gathering information. In the market town of Reepham in my constituency there is a one-stop community office, for which the police are paying the rent and where there is a police presence, the old police station having been closed down—I can well understand the reasons behind that.

The problem for the Norfolk police authority is that the budget is being squeezed owing to central Government devolving more and more responsibilities and new costs. National insurance is an obvious example and is affecting all the public sector. A lot of the budgets, as other hon. Members have said, are top-sliced and ring-fenced. One aspect of the Norfolk police authority budget which creates a great deal of cynicism among councillors and the police is the best value exercise, which costs the authority £650,000 a year. Norfolk does not think that it gets very much out of that exercise, and it would rather have the £650,000 to deploy itself—perhaps to acquire a helicopter permanently.

The Norfolk police authority has a long priority list for funding. I want to conclude by emphasising merely two of them. First, will the Minister confirm that any changes to the police funding allocation do not disadvantage Norfolk and that ring-fenced funding that is currently outside the formula, such as the rural policing fund and the crime fighting fund, will continue to be provided at least at the current levels? If they are not, we are in for an even worse budget than we thought.

Secondly, the hon. Member for North Norfolk made the point that I took up with the Minister's predecessor a year ago, which is the need for dedicated air support. Norfolk is one of only four forces in England and Wales that does not have a helicopter available round the clock. Will the Minister consider that again, to see if the Home Office can provide some funding, or at least some flexibility in funding? We are the second largest county, with a very long coastline. We are lucky at times to have the support of the Royal Air Force, which provides support that it is not legally forced t o provide. I shudder to think where we would get the necessary air support from if there were a major terrorist incident in Norfolk.

Will the Minister look again at that serious issue, and can she guarantee the funding that Norfolk receives already under the rural funding? That would go some way to meeting our concerns. Our concern is that a standstill budget, which is the best that we have to look forward to, would mean that we should have to cut back on the operational effectiveness that the Government have already provided for Norfolk. That would have a detrimental effect on our constituents.

2.35 pm
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak, and add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I am grateful also because it is not often, after one takes part in a debate and the Minister has wound up, that one has a chance to wind up on the Minister's winding-up. In the debate on the police the other day, she mentioned the question—referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson)—of extra burdens on the police. She was worried about my description that the need to introduce diversity in the police force and to deal with child protection"—[Official Report, 15 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 219.] were bureaucracy. I was quoting from the chief constable of Norfolk's report to the police authority, and I hope that she will accept that I was enumerating a list of burdens. Whether good or bad, they are still burdens. I shall not list them all again, but they are at column 208, and include everything from best value—which is of questionable value, as my hon. Friend said—to things such as activity-based costing, the recommendations of the Climbié report, and equal opportunities. I was making the point that whether such things are good or bad, if the Home Office requires local constabularies—including Norfolk—to do them, they impose extra time and resource costs.

I also want to pick up on my hon. Friend's point about helicopters, and the fact that we do not have air cover. I have read a study published by the Public Accounts Committee on the royal family's air and rail travel. By adopting a more flexible approach, and by starting to lease and charter more, the royal family succeeded in more or less doubling the miles that they flew while cutting overall costs from about £17 million to £5 million. The Government constantly remind us that they are accruing assets for the future by paying for them over a period, such as the private finance initiative building for the Home Office, never mind that for the Treasury, so what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. During our visit to the chief constable of Norfolk's top team, we were told that the Home Office had said, "We will give you a cheque now for half the capital costs of the helicopter, but the rules do not allow you to lease or charter". That seems insane. I hope that the Minister will take that seriously.

I want to raise four issues: first, the effect of under-policing in rural areas, such as parts of my South Norfolk constituency; secondly, custody provision in the central area, including the city of Norwich, the urban parts of Broadland district and all of south Norfolk; thirdly, the special constabulary; and fourthly, Government targets.

The central area is central to the operation of Norfolk constabulary because it includes the city of Norwich. As one officer told me, if central area is performing well, Norfolk constabulary is performing well. The central area comprises the urban parts of Broadland and all my constituency, which includes some very rural areas, down to the Waveney valley and along the south-east to the borders of Yarmouth—some of the most rural and sparsely populated parts of Norfolk. Under-policing has an even more dramatic effect in those rural areas. The majority of crime occurs in the area around Norwich, so the biggest gains are made by deploying most of the central area's resources in and around Norwich. As a result, there is a constant battle in my constituency of South Norfolk to get anything even approaching adequate cover. The police sector that is managed from Diss, which excludes the north-west of my constituency around Wymondham but includes almost all the rest, covers a population of some 70,000 people and an area of about 270 square miles, but has only two police vehicles and four officers. Greater London is just over 600 square miles, so the area is about half the size of Greater London. To use an example closer to the Minister's home patch, the city of Manchester—not Greater Manchester—is 45 square miles, so the area is six times bigger than the city of Manchester. As I said, there are four officers in two vehicles, and that is assuming that nothing happens. That thin cover can be removed when there is the slightest problem.

The entire custody provision for the central area is undertaken in Bethel street police headquarters in Norwich. I visited those facilities to see the conditions in the early hours of the morning, and I can vouch for the fact that the quality and quantity are insufficient. On a busy night, it is not uncommon for the Bethel street custody suite to be closed simply because it is full, so that officers who apprehend people have to take them elsewhere.

A few months ago, a police night crew arrested someone in Loddon in my constituency and had to transport the individual to King's Lynn, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). That is some 55 miles by road, so it is a three-hour return journey, which more or less renders the crew inoperable for the rest of the shift. If we add on the processing time once they get there, they are not only inoperable, but out of area for the rest of the night. If there is then just one extra incident in the city of Norwich that requires one extra crew to be called in from South Norfolk, as sometimes happens, an area half the size of Greater London has no police cover at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk was correct to say that this is sometimes a matter of perception, but unfortunately it is also sometimes a reality that very large swathes of rural England, covering many tens of thousands of people, have no police cover for long periods.

That brings me to my third point, which is about specials. In Diss, there used to be 12 members of the special constabulary; there are now eight. Nationally, the figures have fallen significantly—by several thousand. The Government should look into that seriously, because apart from anything else, providing specials is financially smart. It is also good recruiting ground for the regular constabulary. It may be appropriate to pay a bounty. I think that some forces are doing so. When I was in the Territorial Army, a bounty was paid. It was not significant and I certainly did not join the Territorial Army because of it. I joined because I wanted to play my part in ending the cold war, and I am pleased to say that within five years of my joining the Territorial Army, the cold war had ended. I felt, therefore, that I could leave.

My fourth point is about Government targets. There are targets for burglaries, robberies and vehicle crime, as has been said, but one officer said to me that when he meets people in my constituency, in police forums and at parish councils, he finds that for the most part those are not typically the crimes that people worry about. He said that people worry mainly about crimes such as graffiti, vandalism and the other low-level crime that we hear so much about, and certainly people complain directly to me about that sort of incident. The problem is that the targets lead the police to take those issues rather less seriously, even though they know that those are the main concerns of local residents. The incentive is to prioritise other crimes, which people do not necessarily complain about quite so much.

Those are the key issues that I wanted to raise. I again congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk on initiating this Adjournment debate, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

2.43 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing this important short debate. I also praise the Norfolk police authority and particularly its chairman, Jim Wilson, for the excellent briefing with which he provided Norfolk Members, for the consistent pressure that he has been applying and for the considered and effective way in which he has always argued his case.

In recent years, the situation has improved for the Norfolk constabulary in terms of police numbers, initiatives and resources, but that was not always the case. It is worth remembering that, from 1997 to 2000, when I was outside Parliament, there were cuts in Norfolk's police budget, with the result that we had fewer officers. Only now has the nominal roll of police officers in Norfolk been made up to the 1997 level. However, progress has recently been made, which 1 will describe later in my remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) mentioned my constituent, Tony Martin. I had not intended to refer to Tony Martin, but I will do so because it was as a result of that case that the Norfolk constabulary came into public focus. As a consequence of the case, several important initiatives were introduced and, as a consequence of those initiatives, one or two important measures are now in place of which we can be rightly proud.

One of those initiatives was to set up a beat station in Terrington St. John, in west Norfolk. There is now a beat station in that marshland area of Norfolk, which is sparsely populated and where policing is difficult because of the distances involved. In the past, policing in that subdivision was carried out from Downham Market.

The use of Ford Galaxies and mobile police stations are excellent ways of enabling the police to get out into the community and provide a much more visible police presence.

I should like to congratulate chief superintendent Alan Hayes, who has been an extremely proactive and imaginative area commander in our area. He believes in a zero tolerance policy. He takes the view that if a crime is important to local people, it is important to him. It does not matter if the crime is broken windows, graffiti or other antisocial behaviour, it is important to him to try to sort it out, and he will make every effort to prioritise it.

I have attended several parish council meetings with chief superintendent Alan Hayes. His can-do, no-nonsense attitude and zero-tolerance approach to policing, which is, I gather, endorsed by the chief constable, Andy Hayman, has done a great deal to reassure the public and build up local confidence in the police.

I should also like to congratulate Alan Hayes and his team on the way in which they responded to Tony Martin's release. When a high-profile prisoner such as Tony Martin is returned into the community with hundreds of press and cameramen in attendance, who pursued him relentlessly after his return to Bleak house, imaginative and sensitive policing is required. Obviously, such policing can take place only in the context of what the individual is prepared to put up with and co-operate with, but in that situation the police were marvellous. I should like to put on record my gratitude to them and also congratulate them on the way in which they responded to a difficult and sensitive situation.

We have heard today about some of the current budget challenges. The hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned that a 6 per cent. increase will be necessary simply to stand still. I agree with what he said about the bidding process for the different schemes—bidding for those costly "pots" is far from simple and straightforward, and takes up a great deal of time, resources and effort. I have spoken to many police officers who find the whole process very stressful.

I am sure that the Minister will discuss the overall figures for police budgets. We must remind her that, although they may look good on paper, much of the global figure is being kept back by the Home Office. Some £155 million is being held back for centrally controlled national initiatives and priorities. Top-sliced funding of £586 million will be held centrally by the Government and earmarked for more specific initiatives. If the Minister wants to avert what will undoubtedly be a serious funding crisis, it would help if those schemes could be made simpler, but it would also be helpful to trust local constabularies to run schemes that will suit the problems and conditions on the ground. Rather than holding all that money back, why not give it to the police forces and trust them? When there are chief constables of the competence of Andy Hayman, and area commanders of the ability of Alan Hayes, surely they can be trusted to get the job done locally. They do not have to be put in a bureaucratic straitjacket and be drip-fed funds from different pots. They should be left to get on with it.

I endorse what several hon. Members on both sides of the House said about air support. The response to Norfolk constabulary's reasonable request for a helicopter was Government pigheadedness gone mad. Some common sense is needed to cut through the prevailing Whitehall attitude.

I will bring my speech to a close, as we want to hear from the Front Bench spokesmen, and especially the Minister, as we will be very pleased with what she has to tell us. No one would deny that excellent progress has been made, as the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth said, but that is threatened. Morale will suffer enormously if there is not the opportunity and ability to continue with the schemes.

I endorse what several hon. Members have said: it would be completely unfair and utterly perverse to place a burden beyond the rate of inflation on the council tax payers of Norfolk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, many of them are on fixed incomes and it would be wrong to ask those people to pay more money when there have been year-on-year inflation-busting increases in the council tax.

I look forward to the Minister's reply. We have an increasingly effective local police force and we want that to continue.

2.51 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing the debate. Being surrounded by a posse of Norfolk Members on all sides of the Chamber must be of great help in pressing the case for Norfolk. The boundary commission was hardly imaginative in naming constituencies in the county, which have a marked similarity to each other.

It is a coincidence that yesterday the Government published their police performance monitoring book for 2002–03. I looked at the entry for Norfolk, and took seriously the Minister's point in her press release that the diagrams are simple to look at. That may be so, but to understand them is a different concept. I am not yet convinced by the spidergram as a useful tool for understanding.

Setting aside the crime statistics—I take the point made by the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) that there is a heavy qualification on the figures for this year—what worried me in Norfolk's case was the score for those residents who think that the police do a good job. It was shown as 43 per cent., one of the lowest of any force in the country. From what I have heard in the debate and elsewhere, the Norfolk constabulary are not doing too bad a job with their available resources, but there is a mismatch between the public perception of the efforts made by the chief constable and his officers and the results on the ground. That should concern all of us, not least the Minister, as it is reasonable for her to say that extra resources have been put into policing in the past year or so.

I entirely agree with the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that when the Government took office they delayed putting extra resources into policing. There are now extra police, yet public confidence is not increasing, and we should take careful note of that. Despite extra personnel in Norfolk and in almost every other force, resources are stretched to breaking point and beyond. Despite falling crime in some areas overall, the perception of vulnerability to crime, particularly in rural areas, is growing exponentially. Somehow, a way must be found to reconcile those issues.

Two concerns for Norfolk have been expressed today. The first is rural policing, which is a subject dear to my heart in my constituency. The second is the council tax increase. I would like to talk briefly on both topics.

Many people in rural areas suffer from a small crime rate in comparison with the national or international average. However, it is also true that their level of concern has increased over recent years, because they feel intensely vulnerable, and do not believe that they have a level of police service that is consonant with the level that they want in order to feel reassured. That feeling can be picked up in almost any village or small town in the country. It is made worse by the influence of larger conurbations, as referred to by the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) in his comments on Norwich. Norwich is hardly the crime capital of the country, but it is a significant large city. From the point of view of my constituency, Bristol is unfortunately a significant area for crime.

The fact that resources are constantly sucked into the cities away from rural areas has a real and immediate effect on the level of policing in rural areas. Now is the time to address rural policing differently, although I am not about to deliver a new policing policy on behalf of my party. I am rapidly reaching the conclusion, which I think is shared by others—I hope for a serious and sensible debate—that the issues of serious, organised and national crime are interfering with keeping the peace throughout most of Britain. We must separate the tiers of responsibility and the functionalities of the police to give a better deal and a more efficient system. That needs to be considered carefully, and I think that all three parties are coming to a similar conclusion.

We need a much closer relationship between the level of policing in rural areas and the aspirations of the local crime reduction partnerships and local authorities. We need almost a contractual arrangement for a minimal level of service, which would mean that police officers would not be continually abstracted from the rural beat to help out with the latest national policing objective in the big cities.

We must consider how to achieve a higher visibility for the patrol function in rural areas. I understand why there are no longer police officers in small rural police stations or police houses in villages, and why the police need to be on the move and in a car. However, local communities need to see visible signs that they are being policed. We need more of what I have always called intelligent patrols, to ensure that the police are seen in the right places at relevant times. In that way, people are reassured and can share in community policing by passing on low-level intelligence when they see police officers. I do not know what the Norfolk police telephone system is like, but I must say that the system in my constituency is a disaster for the public who want to get in touch with a local police officer.

Mr. Bellingham:

One of the complaints that I keep getting is that people ring the Norfolk switchboard and talk to someone in Wymondham who does not know the nooks and crannies of small villages in north-west Norfolk. I am sure that my three Opposition colleagues agree that that is a real problem.

Mr. Heath:

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has confirmed what I suspected. This is not just a problem for my constabulary; it is a national problem. The more efficient we make these call centres, the less well they serve the public because they are more remote and it is more difficult to get the right message through to the right person in the right place at the right time. That is a concern.

There are things that could be done immediately. I have long argued that we need a new status of police officer in rural areas. We need the retained officer, which is not so different from what the hon. Member for South Norfolk described. We have done it for firefighters for years. We could not run a fire brigade in Norfolk, certainly not in Somerset, without the retained firefighter, and yet there is no such category of police officer. We rely on either the special police constable or the regular full-time police officer. I accept that there are now some part-time officers, but we have nothing analogous to the retained officer. That is a mistake. If we want visibility in policing in rural areas, that is one way to achieve it.

The rural crime fighting fund has plugged some gaps but it is centrally administered. There is no certainty of continuity. If we are convinced that there is a problem with the formula as it applies to rural areas, let us wrestle with that and get the formula right rather than constantly adding little bits to try to put it right later. That is not the way to run a distribution formula, and it puts rural forces at a huge disadvantage.

We are quickly reaching a crisis in council tax increases. I will not repeat either the figures for Norfolk or the national figures. The public and we, on behalf of the public whom we represent, are saying that enough is enough. It is simply not acceptable to have huge increases in the council tax year after year without a corresponding increase in the level of service. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk, I have grave doubts about whether council tax is an appropriate mechanism for raising the funds for local authorities and whether there are not better alternatives. Even within the context of the current tax, the gearing on it and the reduction of effective support from central Government have resulted in an unsustainable situation. People are being asked to pay a lot more each year without getting an improved service.

Years ago we asked people whether they would be happy to pay an extra fiver in return for a better police force, and they said yes. There is no shortage of good will here, but people are not prepared to pay a 14 or 15 per cent. increase in their precepts this year on top of the double-figure percentage increase that they paid last year if they cannot see any results. There will be a real problem for the Government unless they address it before the announcement of the support levels for next year. We know what the Treasury's intention is and that it is entirely inconsistent with what the Home Office is trying to achieve in policing levels.

We cannot have that argument in this Chamber. We can merely support the view that the Home Office has to be extremely clever at presenting its case with the Treasury and that the present projections simply will not work. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) pointed out the inconsistency between the Home Secretary's intentions and the Deputy Prime Minister's plans for capping. We need clarity on that because it is important to police authorities in planning their budget for next year. However, even if there is the utmost clarity it will not help the poor council tax payer who will receive an increased bill unless something else gives.

Constabularies such as Norfolk need "a new deal", to use the new Labour term. Let us have a new deal for rural policing that recognises the difficulties besetting these forces. Let us recognise that there are bigger issues that perhaps are properly dealt with at a different tier. Many Members referred to the air support that is available to Norfolk. When I was chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority some 10 years ago, I was in the same position, as we had no air cover, so we ended up making collaborative arrangements with our neighbouring police authority in Gloucestershire, in which one helicopter served both areas. However, I agree that the current rules are a nonsense and should be changed.

If we are to see a real and sustainable improvement in policing and increase the figure of only 43 per cent. of residents in Norfolk thinking that the police do a good job, we will need security of funding that goes a long way beyond what is now available. Unless the Home Secretary acts quickly, we will see a great deal of trouble in the near future.

3.5 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I was interested in the opening comment of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the Boundary Commission's unimaginative terminology for Norfolk constituencies. Given the problem that many Members have in pronouncing Somerton and Frome correctly, the general geographical approach adopted for Norfolk is probably wiser.

I was also interested in the hon. Gentleman's statement that he would not announce a new Liberal Democrat policy; we await with interest an announcement that there is one at all.

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) on securing the debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, it is a re-run of one that has taken place before. We could have a similar debate on every force in the country—if I were not debarred because I am on the Front Bench, I could introduce one about Cambridgeshire. However, it is particularly appropriate that we are debating Norfolk, because Jim Wilson, chairman of the Norfolk police authority, is leading for the Association of Police Authorities on the problem of next year's funding.

My constabulary in Cambridgeshire shares a secretariat with Norfolk, which shows what co-operation can take place. It seems odd that I receive all my communications about Cambridgeshire police from Wymondham in Norfolk, but that is the way that the force operates.

All hon. Members referred to council tax and increasing bureaucracy. The hon. Member for North Norfolk was generous to the Government in saying that just under 10,000 civil servants are employed in the central part of the Home Office, as the figure is actually nearer 11,000. That is nothing to do with any of the other non-police departments, and as he said, it exceeds the number of extra police officers.

Hon. Members also spoke about Home Office impositions. Some referred to the request for a helicopter and asked why the Home Office could not provide 100 per cent. funding for a second-hand one instead of 50 per cent. for a new one, or why it could not help arrange a naval leasing. I have some sympathy with the Minister, as I am sure that she will not be able to explain the basis for that decision. It is not her decision, or even the Home Office's: it will have been imposed by Treasury rules. Those of us who have been lucky enough to be in government know that the Treasury's fingers are in everything—that seems even more so under the present Chancellor.

As several Members have said, the issue of police funding is rapidly coming to a head. I am sure that the Minister will laud the Government's achievements and describe the extra resources that the police have received. It would be foolish to argue that they have not put more money into the police, as there has been a welcome increase in police officers in the past three years—the second half of the Government's period in office: the first half was spent running down police numbers. However, it is no use the Government talking about increased resources only in global terms when they are also increasing the burden of cost on police authorities and on other public service. We have seen massive increases in costs during the past few years.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) referred to Airwave, which has been on the stocks for a long time. I do not know anyone who is opposed to Airwave—unless it means erecting a Tetra mast in our constituency, when we all find a reason to oppose it. However, it is a huge extra cost. Simply saying that the Government are spending all this extra money while ignoring the extra costs is only half the argument.

National insurance increases and considerable changes to the police pay structure are now coming into play, and they will put huge extra costs on the police force. The Association of Police Authorities estimates that that will result in an average of 6 per cent. expenditure next year. It forecasts that next year's council tax will have to increase by 15 per cent. on average just to stand still. As Members from all parties have said, we cannot go on raising council tax. There has been a more than 70 per cent. average overall rise in the police precept since the Government came to office, and in last year alone it rose by 25 per cent.

I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the Government will shortly reap their own harvest. The public will not tolerate ever-increasing hikes in council tax. I understand one of the reasons why the Government have adopted that approach: it is easy to blame somebody else, such as local authorities. They can shift the burden on to council taxpayers, and then say that if local authorities have not been able to make efficiency savings that is their fault. The Secretary of State for Education, who is another Norfolk MP, tried that last year—this present financial year—with schools in Norfolk, but he had to eat his words. It was obvious that the fault was nothing to do with local education authorities, but was the responsibility of the Government Department, which had got its figures wrong. I fear that that will happen across the board with the police and other public services.

Several hon. Members have referred to the issue of top-slicing—that is the phrase that I like to use—in relation to central specific projects. It is perfectly true—I am sure that the Minister will claim that it is—that such money is eventually spent on policing and some of it goes to police authorities. However, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk and others have said, that system creates a huge bureaucracy of its own, because forces have to bid for the money, often to no avail or for very small sums. I am told that there is one fund of just £2 million for video facilities. If the 43 police forces have a crack at bidding for that, I suspect that an equal amount of money will be spent just on the bidding process. In my opinion, that is central-controlled top-slicing gone mad.

Last year, there was a 58 per cent. increase in the amount of money withheld at the centre for specific grants. That is a worrying trend, because it is another example of the Home Office taking ever more control over how we go about our policing. The other aspect of all these specific funds is that many of them are time limited. At the end of the day, the force is faced with deciding whether to go on with a certain form of expenditure or curtail it; it then faces the resulting opprobrium of doing that. We need only consider the example of community support officers. Without going into the rights and wrongs of such a scheme, which we have done on many occasions, Home Office funding for community support officers, which this year starts at 100 per cent., goes down to 50 per cent. in 2005–06. If those forces that have taken up community support officers want to continue with them, there will be a huge shift of burden from the specific fund to the general fund, and I very much doubt that sufficient money will go into the general fund.

I shall turn now to how the money is being spent and how well we are using it for improvements in policing in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, the metropolitan area and elsewhere. As several hon. Members have said—including the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth, who finds himself in a difficult position in this debate—there have been improvements in policing. Of course, Norfolk police, along with others, have developed new initiatives and new partnerships, and have improved things. Nobody denies that. However, as several hon. Members have also said, public perception is that crime is getting worse, particularly in rural areas, and that fewer police are visible and available to respond to a call-out. Now when people ring up they just get given an incident number so that they can claim on their insurance.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to yesterday's figures. The sad fact is that about 97 per cent. of crimes that involve a victim—rather than retail crime—never result in a conviction. People might say that we live in a peaceful society, but that figure shows that that is not the case. I will not pretend that the country is lawless, but the situation is far from satisfactory.

Contrary to the assertions of the Prime Minister in the House earlier today, the problem is not primarily with the criminal justice system. I am not defending that system as it is far from perfect, but well over 50 per cent. of those who are prosecuted end up being convicted. The big problem is detecting the crime and getting to the point of prosecution—that is where the largest proportion of that 97 per cent. fall out of the system.

Part of the problem is the ever-increasing central control that the police are being put under. As a result, police authorities and chief constables are unable to concentrate on the needs of their own area. They are for ever responding to Government pressures—funding pressures for special funds, meeting national policing plan arrangements, and so forth. In a nutshell, police officers are spending more and more time chasing targets and less time chasing the criminals, which is what we expect them to do.

There must be a dramatic change: responsibility must be shifted away from central Government to local police authorities. They should be given a transparent, block grant, and allowed to decide whether they want a new or a second-hand helicopter and how many police officers and community support officers they need. They should make the decisions and set the targets, and account to local people if they fail to meet them.

We also need a quantum shift in the number of police officers. I welcome the increase that there has been in the last few months, but it is nowhere near enough. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and I have repeatedly made the point that the force should be increased by about a third—approximately 40,000 officers. We would make resources available to police authorities for them to achieve that.

The constant centralisation of control, of targets and of the management of the funding, combined with the Treasury rules that we have heard about, will come back to haunt the Government. I hope that the Minister has a way out of this predicament.

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

I am delighted that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) managed to secure this debate. It has provided a useful opportunity to air local concerns. I was not the Minister responsible for policing when a similar debate took place last year, so I have appreciated hearing from a range of Members from all parties about the issues in their communities. A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to go to Newmarket to have a question and answer session with the police authorities—I think that it lasted for two and a half hours. I got a real flavour of what the concerns were in that local community.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to what has been said, and I hope that I will be able to answer most of the questions that have been raised. I intend to make an announcement on the 2004–05 provisional police funding settlement in about mid-November. Therefore, Members will have to have a bit of patience and bear with me, because I will not be in a position to give specific information until I make that announcement.

To reply to the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), we have not yet set floors and ceilings, so no figures have been decided. We will announce them at the same time as the settlement. Expenditure on policing supported by the Government has increased by 30 per cent. over the past three years, which is a significant investment. I acknowledge that hon. Members have recognised that. That will be increased by a further 4 per cent. next year. That increase covers the general grant through the formula spending, specific grant and Home Office direct expenditure.

Mr. Bacon:

I would be most grateful if the Minister could tell me the total cost of the extra civil servants employed in the Home Office since 1997. If she cannot, I should appreciate her writing to me.

Ms Blears:

I was going to come to that in responding to what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said. I understand that many of them are employed as asylum caseworkers processing much of the shambles that was left to us to sort out. I will gladly provide the hon. Gentleman with full details and let him know exactly what is done. His comments are similar to the argument that is often raised about administrators in the health service. When we come to unpick the issue, we find that such people are cleaners and porters and are doing a useful job. Let us have the facts out. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

On the general financial situation, the Home Secretary has said that under the 4 per cent. figure no police authority will receive an increase of police authority general grant below the level of inflation, which we estimate at the moment to be around 2.5 per cent.

Several hon. Members referred to the pressures on council tax in general and precepts for the police in particular. We acknowledge that those pressures have existed for a couple of years. The public, especially people on lower incomes, are struggling with some of the council tax rises. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office are speaking with one voice on council tax rises and the required precept.

I know that police authorities have been constructive in talking to their local communities and seeking to justify their precepts. I want them to continue to make well-justified cases for any increases. I know that they will want to consolidate the gains that we have made in recent years where they are able to do that. The gains in the numbers of police and community support officers have universal public support. However, the police authorities must bear in mind the Government's concern that the current trend in council tax rises is unsustainable.

There have been one or two large precept rises at the margins, the highest being 76 per cent. That is not a reasonable position for us to be in. I am conscious of the different pressures out there. The ODPM has said that next year it could use targeted capping powers if people have acted unreasonably. That applies as much to police authorities as it does to local authorities as a whole.

This year Norfolk was allocated a general policing grant of £79.6 million—an increase of 3.7 per cent. That was considerably higher than the floor. Some 19 authorities got only 3 per cent. Norfolk increased its budget by 8.8 per cent. because it wanted to provide an increase in services to the community. The precept was increased by 21.5 per cent. Although that seems like a large increase, it amounts to 42p per week, increasing the amount to £122 a year. Sometimes the percentage increases do not reflect the tangible sums asked for. The increase in Norfolk was a little bit lower than the general increase of around 28 per cent in shire authorities.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of the fairness of the funding formula. There is an element in the funding formula that takes account of capital receipts and whether there are a great deal to dispose of, and another element takes account of people on holiday in an area—it takes account of overnight visitors, not just the resident population. The funding formula was updated last year to try to be a little more sophisticated and sensitive to the needs of different communities, and it has wide buy-in from a range of stakeholders. We will consider with the policing community how we can make the formula more sensitive and responsive to local people's needs.

Specific grants, as well as the general grant, have been developed in recent years—whether one calls them ring-fenced, top-sliced or whatever. I am trawling the budget for room to manoeuvre to maximise the general grant where possible. However, I am sure that hon. Members would not want the rural policing grant put into that pot; they probably still want it as a separate pot. We need to recognise the problem of the sparsity of policing in rural areas, and we should try to ensure that we keep that separate pot available.

Norfolk gets £3.07 million from the crime fighting fund. I assure the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk that the crime fighting fund for recruits will continue indefinitely; we have no plans to roll that back into general grants. I am pleased to be able to give that reassurance.

There is also £3.23 million for Airwave. I am delighted that Airwave is a robust and resilient mobile communications service for the force, which is taking it up extremely well. I hope that the use of the text and data applications as well as the mobile communications will give extra value, and will help the force to reduce form-filling and bureaucracy. Norfolk also gets funding for community support officers; there are 12 in Norwich, and there is permission to recruit another 18. Community support officers are proving extremely popular.

There is £500,000 for direct basic command unit funding, £500,000 in special priority payments and nearly £750,000 for DNA funding so that forces can utilise forensics and technology in supporting what they do.

Many ring-fenced or top-sliced grants are for things that the police have themselves declared to be a priority. I was interested to note that during the 1990s the previous Government provided funds in the general pot for an extra 5,000 police officers. I am told that practically none were delivered, as police authorities spent the cash on other priorities. So there is often a balance to be drawn between having things in a general pot and having them ring-fenced.

Norfolk's share of the rural policing fund was £2.08 million; it was one of the top four beneficiaries of that fund. That is an important fund for the area. We do not envisage changes to that. Police authorities do not have to bid for rural grants; the grants are allocated, so there is no bureaucracy. They add 2.5 per cent. to Norfolk's policing budget; that is a significant amount, which can do some of the extra things that hon. Members have talked about.

Police numbers are at record levels in Norfolk, I am delighted to say, as they are throughout the country—there is more high-visibility policing. Hon. Members have raised the issue of pensions; they are an important consideration for the whole of the service. I am considering some proposals, which clearly will not help us this year. However, in years to come I am prepared to grasp the nettle on pensions to see whether we can make improvements for the future. I am very conscious of a bulge of people coming through, which will be a huge burden for many authorities.

I am intrigued by the question of air support. My information is that we agree to provide part funding for air support, provided that forces are also prepared to put something in the pot. Norfolk was not able to do that. However, I understand that it made an application to purchase a second-hand helicopter. I hate to call it that—it sounds a terrible description for a helicopter—perhaps "pre-used" is better. However, there was a question about that helicopter's suitability for its purpose. If we can reach an agreement in which Norfolk would make a contribution, I will certainly consider the matter, as I have already said in correspondence to hon. Members. However, I am not aware that it has put a bid in for next year. If it is prepared to come to the table and make a contribution, we are prepared to consider it. So far that bid has not been made. I am prepared to reconsider the matter if there are some genuinely constructive ways forward.

Hon. Members have rightly raised the issue of specials, whose numbers have gone down. We now have a big programme with pilot schemes to pay some specials to see whether that makes a difference. Specials are torn on the matter of payment: some say that they would like to remain volunteers, others say that they would like payment. I am really keen to get more specials.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) has been present to explain the positive things going on in his area. He has a policing priority area in the Regent ward in Great Yarmouth, where they are doing tremendous work to achieve a closer partnership. I know that the hon. Gentleman, unlike the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), thoroughly supports the Government's Anti-social Behaviour Bill and the powers that it will give us to make communities safer. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will reconsider their ill thought-out position on the whole antisocial behaviour agenda, which it would serve them well to do.

Finally, Norfolk is a pretty safe place to live. I know that people want to see more police on the streets, but the force is doing an extremely good job, led by a very able chief constable and a good local authority, and is having a real impact on Norfolk. I hope that hon. Members thoroughly enjoy living there and being part of the community in the years to come.

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