Police Grant Report

Electricity (Maintenance of Supplies) – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 4 February 1998.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State, Home Office 4:23, 4 February 1998

I beg to move,

That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 1998–99 (HC 492), which was laid before this House on 2 February, be approved. This is my first opportunity to open a debate on the funding of the police service in England and Wales, and I am very pleased to do so. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in his Christmas message to police officers across the country, we all owe the police a debt of gratitude for the risks that they take on our behalf, and for the quiet professionalism with which they go about their daily duties. He went on to say that the Government have a duty to give the police their full support, and to provide them, as best they can, with the resources and powers that they require to enable them to do their job effectively.

I referred to resources and powers. We shall debate powers later in the Session, particularly when we come to the radical proposals for tackling crime in England, Wales and Scotland contained in the Crime and Disorder Bill. Today's debate is not about powers: it is about resources.

At the general election, we were careful not to make rash promises about police numbers and police funding that we could not deliver. Since coming to office, we have been equally mindful of the need not to make impossible commitments on increasing police numbers. One of the previous Government's mistakes—and there were many—was to plan and project increases in police numbers, when in the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 they had handed to chief constables and their police authorities the freedom to decide whether to use available resources on recruiting more police officers or on other expenditure such as information technology or equipment.

It is a matter of record that the number of police officers in England and Wales fell from 127,627 in March 1992 to 127,158 at the end of March 1997, which is a loss of 469 officers instead of the additional 1,000 officers that were promised for the 12 months following March 1992.

I do not intend to fall into the trap of promising extra officers. Of course police numbers are important; but far more important is the number of officers available for duty at any one time, and the quality of service that they provide to the public.

Last week's Audit Commission report makes interesting reading. It rightly emphasises the important link between funding and performance. It makes the point that performance sometimes does not reflect the level of funding, as one would expect. We must ensure that we get best value for money from the resources provided to all public services, including the police. We shall continue to work closely with forces and police authorities to ensure that that is achieved in the police service. We are examining funding in the context of the value-for-money study of police efficiency that is taking place as part of the fundamental review of all aspects of public expenditure. In the meantime, we shall do all we can to ensure that the police have adequate resources to play their key part in preventing and cutting crime, and in working with local authorities and other agencies to tackle crime and disorder.

Money is tight, and we are committed to remaining within the previous Government's overall spending plans while we undertake our comprehensive spending review. Nevertheless, the police service in England and Wales will be able to increase its spending for the coming financial year by £258 million, which is an increase of 3.7 per cent. As a result, the total revenue spending power of the police may rise to £7.15 billion. That is a healthy increase at a time of public spending constraint. It shows the Government's commitment to helping the police build on their success in tackling crime. Overall, the settlement gives police authorities the finance to cover pay and pension increases.

Let me explain how we reached the 3.7 per cent. figure. Under proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister last December and restated on 2 February, all police authorities will be subject to a single capping criterion that will allow a budget increase of 3.2 per cent., with the standard proviso that authorities set budgets no more than 12.5 per cent. above the sum of their standard spending assessments and principal grant under the funding formula. Forces may budget to the total of SSA and principal formula grant even if that results in a budget increase of more than 3.2 per cent. A number of police authorities will be able to take advantage of that last measure. Similar proposals have been announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales in respect of Welsh police authorities.

In addition, we have included in the settlement the final £40 million instalment of the additional funding planned by the previous Administration for police officers in 1998–99. That money is being provided outside the capping limits. We are therefore honouring the earlier commitment by providing the finance. However, we are not attaching a condition that the money should be spent on extra officers: that is not for the Government to decide. Resources are being made available to enable police authorities to increase spending on delivering my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's key objectives for the police for 1998–99. The extra funds, which are allocated under additional rule 2A of the Police Grant Report, and the earlier instalments, which are allocated under additional rule 2, are being made available outside the capping limits of 3.2 per cent. When added to the capping increase, they will deliver an overall spending power increase of 3.7 per cent.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

Can the Minister explain why the additional funds that were made available for the provision of more police officers were not translated nationally into the recruitment of more officers—although that did happen in Hampshire?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State, Home Office

Yes, I can, very simply. The police said that they needed more money in order to do their job. The additional money was granted, theoretically for the provision of extra police officers; but it was not for the Government to decide how money allocated to police forces should be used. The 1994 Act made that the responsibility of the chief constables and the police authorities. The Government gave the money intending it to be used to provide more officers, but it was for the chief constables and the police authorities to undertake their duty of deciding what was the best value for money.

It is clear that judgments differed in different parts of the country. Some police forces felt that they should pass the money straight through into increased policing, and found that the resources available to them allowed them to do so. For others, that would have meant cutting other areas of expenditure—or it would not have made sense for them to take on police officers without being certain that they could maintain the same level of employment in future years. The establishment factor has been changing; the previous Government changed it persistently for a number of years. The number of police officers is not a tap that can be turned on and off. It cannot be turned on in one year without there being implications for finance in future years.

The Government said that they would provide more money for police officers, but it was not their responsibility to give money for police officers. Their responsibility was to give money to the police so that they could do their job. We warned what would happen, and it did happen.

The settlement for the Metropolitan police will give them a revenue spending power of £1.775 billion. That represents an increase of 3.7 per cent. in spending power over 1997–98, taking the Metropolitan police to exactly the national average. The settlement is fair, but not excessive. It is in line with the increase for police authorities in the rest of England and Wales. The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has acknowledged that it is fair in the context of public expenditure constraints. We have had to strike a balance between the Commissioner's assessment of need and the demands of council tax payers.

Included in the total settlement for the Met is a special payment in recognition of its capital city and national functions. The payment was fixed at £130 million in 1995, and until now has remained unchanged. For 1998–99, it will be increased by £21 million to £151 million. The increase followed a review of the special payment led by the Home Office, assisted by the Metropolitan police. We wanted to establish a firm foundation for the calculation of the figure. That review was the first serious attempt to cost the Met' s capital city and national functions.

The report provides a degree of transparency about the additional payment that was not previously available. I know that police authorities have welcomed its publication, although some outside London have voiced concerns about the level of the payment. We consider that the report is an open and honest attempt to study and identify the additional costs that the Metropolitan police must bear in relation to their national and capital city functions, which are exceptional.

In general, people agree that there is that additional capital city element, although I think we all accept that there is no simple way of identifying it. We have done the best we can, working with the Commissioner and others, to establish rationally what the figure should be. Now that the new level of payment has been established, we shall consider whether it needs further uplifting against the background of future police funding settlements. It establishes a rational basis for looking at the needs of the Metropolitan police.

As part of the settlement for the Metropolitan police, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to prepare a comprehensive value-for-money strategy that will draw together the current initiatives and look forward over the next five years. The overall national increase of 3.7 per cent. does not include an additional £30 million that we have transferred from central funding to local police funding for 1998–99, to allow authorities to pay the levy to the new service authority for the National Criminal Intelligence Service. That sum also includes a contribution to the NCIS and national crime squad service authorities.

Every police authority will get its share of the £30 million. We have excluded that sum from our calculations, because, although it is a cash increase, it does not represent an increase in spending power as forces will need it to pay their levy. That levy was proposed by the previous Government and we supported it. We felt that it was right that those national functions, the finance for them and the representation on the service authorities should be routed back into local police forces and local authorities. That principle, which was established during debates and by agreement between both sides for incorporation in earlier legislation, is respected in the way that we have described the increased finance for this year.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary consulted the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities on the levies. In the light of the consultation process, he decided to direct the service authorities to issue levies that were lower than those that were originally proposed. The APA has described that as a sensible outcome of tripartite consultation.

Since 1995, allocations to individual authorities under the main settlement have been made according to a needs-based funding formula. The basis for calculating the money is the amount that each police force needs to do the job. In the short period between taking up office and announcing provisional grant allocations for 1998–99, we have not had time to consider whether there is any need for significant changes to the formula. However, in the light of consultation with the police service, we are making two minor changes. First, in recognition of the continuing increase in police pension costs, we are increasing the proportion of grant and standard spending assessment that is distributed under the pensions component of the funding formula from 12.9 per cent. to 13.2 per cent.

Secondly, we have reduced the amount of funding that is based on police force establishments. When the formula was introduced in 1995, 50 per cent. of funding was allocated on the basis of forces' past establishment levels. The number of police officers who were employed during the previous year had an impact on determining the finances for the coming financial year. The proportion has been progressively reduced over the past three years to 30 per cent. For 1998–99, we have reduced it again by 10 percentage points to 20 per cent. It is important to continue to move away from a historical means of funding and closer to a needs-based approach. The force establishment figures are increasingly out of date, because original figures rather than those for the previous year are used. Confidence in the formula continues to grow.

Photo of Dr Brian Mawhinney Dr Brian Mawhinney Shadow Secretary of State

I am grateful to be allowed to intervene before the Minister leaves this part of the speech. I do not seek to make a partisan point, because we both know the difficult problems that are associated with the increasing pension contribution. The Minister will know that the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), had discussions with the police about that matter. I assume that the Minister and the present Home Secretary are also having discussions. The problem must be addressed soon, because it is already of significant proportions. Could the Minister say a little about his thinking on the issue and tell us when we might expect some proposals for discussion and consultation?

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State, Home Office

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he raised the issue. He is right, and I raised the issue several times in rather the same manner when we were in opposition and the matter was being debated. We hope to be able to report shortly our views on the pensions element. The right hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that there is no magic wand that can be applied to the problem. For example, a fully funded scheme would require about £20 billion. I think that that figure has been mentioned. That is not the sort of money that grows on rose bushes, but we shall introduce proposals in relation to both the police service and the fire service, where similar problems exist. What we have done this year is to increase the proportion of grant and SSA that is distributed under the pensions component, so that the greater burden in the coming financial year compared with this financial year is reflected at least realistically in the figures.

Out of interest, I found out what the percentage increase would he if we netted out the additional cost of pensions. If we took out the extra money for the extra burden of pensions, the overall increase of 3.7 per cent. in the finance available for forces would go down to 3.5 per cent. We have been realistic; it is still a realistic settlement and realistic increase. We shall debate the matter again in the near future, because we need to establish a way forward for the long term, although, as I say, I would not like to promise that a magic wand can be waved and immediately remove the problem.

Returning to the formula as a whole, I believe that, with the reduction of that historic element—the amount of funding that is based on police force establishments—there is increasing confidence in the needs-based formula. The Association of Police Authorities has welcomed both the measures to change the funding formula.

We are making two further changes from last year. We are abolishing two of the additional rules that were introduced by the previous Government: 1 and 3. Both those rules, which sought to guarantee minimum increases in funding and spending for all authorities, served simply to distort or to override the application of the formula.

We understand the reason for the rules: to smooth the impact of changes where they mean that authorities are losers rather than gainers, and any change in a system is bound to produce losers and gainers. The problem is that the rules distorted expectations.

For example, one police authority that came to see me, which had received additional money under the formula to try to help it over the impact of last year's settlement, said that it expected that the assistance would continue year on year, rather than being a one-off to smooth things over. It is clear from what the previous Home Secretary said that the assistance was not to be given year on year, but was a one-off. Police authorities have been confused, so it is important that we have a simple system that everyone understands.

The APA has welcomed the measures, although one or two authorities have suggested that additional rule 1 funding should be phased out over more than one year. However, against the background of a needs-based formula, it is difficult to justify the continuation of the special funding that the rule provided. We shall therefore remove it completely in 1998–99.

Applying the formula without those additional rules inevitably means that, as well as winners, there will be some losers. A formula that provides winners and losers will never enjoy universal acclaim. It is funny how the comments on the formula come largely from the losers, but that is only natural. It is important that the formula is intrinsically sound, and applied as far as possible without distortion.

Many chief constables and police authorities have said to me that, more than anything else, they want to know where they stand, not just for one year, but over successive years, so that they can predict where they will have difficulties and plan for them. We are trying to assist by giving them a predictable future. We believe that the system is essentially sound, but we shall continue to review and refine it in consultation with police authorities and ACPO.

The effect of the formula and capping principles to be applied by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister unfortunately means that two police authorities—Surrey and Lincolnshire—will be disappointed by the settlement. To be blunt, they are disappointed by it, and have said so.

The chief constables of those forces came to see me with representatives from the police authorities to express their concerns over the Government's funding proposals for 1998–99. I listened to them carefully, but my view remains that the special funding that they were given in 1997–98 cannot continue.

Tough choices are sometimes necessary for the greater good. The Government stand by their tough decisions in respect of Lincolnshire and Surrey. In doing so, I fully acknowledge that both forces are efficient and effective organisations. This is not a question of penalising inefficient forces. It is simply about allowing the formula and the capping limits to apply without the intervention of additional rules to distort the needs-based system.

Another issue that has been raised in several quarters is that of sparsity, which affects forces that have to police rural areas where distance makes their problems slightly different from those of metropolitan areas. They complained that the formula does not recognise the costs involved in policing areas of rural sparsity.

The previous Government introduced a sparsity element into the formula without objective evidence to justify it. We have left it in place for 1998–99, but we want to ensure that the pressures of policing rural areas receive fair consideration. Equally, I want to be sure that the formula takes account of the cost implications of policing densely populated urban areas. I am therefore commissioning independent research into the costs of policing areas of rural sparsity and urban density, in the hope that it will give us an objective method of judging the way forward on this argument which, as hon. Members will know, has arisen annually. We need to put it on a factual basis, and I hope that the research will assist us in doing that.

I shall refer briefly to capital expenditure for the police. We will be supporting £179 million of capital expenditure next year. We have inherited a difficult situation from the previous Government on police capital provision, a matter that we have debated over the past two years. Funding has in fact been cut over the previous three years. However, all funding for the major police building programme is being maintained for next year as ACPO and the authorities wanted. The majority of forces will benefit from that funding.

Maintaining funding for the major building programme has meant a reduction of 4 per cent. across the board in allocations for minor capital works. That is a much smaller reduction than in the two previous years, when cuts of 17 per cent. were imposed. Spending on minor works, vehicles and equipment needs to be efficient and provide value for money.

The private finance initiative offers forces an opportunity to extend their capital needs and remove investment backlog. We have removed the barriers to successful PFI projects. New arrangements introduced by the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions at the end of last year will help police authorities and the private sector to develop projects more quickly and with greater certainty.

Revenue support in the form of PFI credits will be available to forces that sign PFI contracts, where the commercial viability of the project has been signed off by the new Treasury task force. We expect around four more police PFI contracts to be completed next year.

In conclusion, this is a very fair settlement for the police in a very tight spending round. The additional resources, coupled with our proposals in the Crime and Disorder Bill to tackle other issues in the criminal justice system—they include nipping things in the bud with regard to young offenders, speeding up the youth courts, dealing with anti-social behaviour and driving forward a partnership approach to cutting crime—will all help the police in the fight against crime and disorder. I commend the report to the House.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale 4:47, 4 February 1998

At best, this police grant settlement represents a standstill for the police service in England and Wales; at worst, it will mean budget cuts for several police authorities, leading to fewer police on our streets.

Year after year, Labour criticised the Tories for not spending enough on the police service, yet what do we find now? In his press statement on Monday, the Home Secretary admitted with refreshing honesty: The police are the only local authority service to have had an increase greater than inflation in each of the last 4 years. What an admission—it must be the first time a Minister has tried to excuse not giving enough money by suggesting that the Tories gave too much. It is hardly the background against which Labour should complain of a poor inheritance.

Three years ago, when Labour voted against the grant settlement, the current Home Secretary gave four reasons. First, he claimed that manifesto promises on police numbers had not been kept. Secondly, he said that some police forces would have to cut their numbers. Thirdly, he said that the funding formula was not sufficiently objective and that the apportionment of grant had been arbitrarily fiddled. Fourthly, he said that the grant settlement lacked the necessary flexibility to deal with public crises arising from national political matters that placed a strain on local police budgets—the House will recall, for example, the animal welfare demonstrations at Shoreham at the time.

How does new Labour's first police grant settlement match up to those complaints? In the manifesto commitments, we have drawn a blank. The Minister himself said that there would be no rash promises and, indeed, in new Labour's manifesto there were no commitments—nothing about police numbers and nothing about extra resources, just pious waffle about strong support for front-line services.

I shall now deal with the charge that police forces would have to reduce numbers. There were more constables under the Tories and it looks certain that there will be fewer police officers as a direct result of this settlement. That view is shared by a number of police forces.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I know the point the Minister is going to make. We listened carefully to what he said, so I hope that he will listen to what we say. I shall deal with the point that I know he has in mind.

Let us take the case of Lincolnshire constabulary, for example—I see that the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) is in her place. The loss of grant to Lincolnshire is £2.5 million. The Lincolnshire police authority says that reductions in the number of police officers are inevitable, despite the fact that council tax payers are facing a 14 per cent. increase in their police council tax precept.

In Surrey, the grant has been cut by £7.5 million. A 28 per cent. increase in police council tax precept will not prevent a £4.3 million cut in budget, resulting in 20 to 30 fewer officers than were originally planned. Humberside police authority faces a budget cut of £2.5 million. Thames Valley faces a £6.3 million cut. Dorset faces a deficit of £1.5 million, despite a 12 per cent. hike in council tax. Cheshire must find £1.3 million in savings. It is inevitable that such reductions in spending will mean the employment of fewer police officers in many parts of the country. Is that what the Minister really intends?

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

In a moment.

In Wales, two of the four police authoritiesDyfed-Powys and Gwent—have expressed grave disappointment and concern at the implication of the settlement. In today's Western Mail, the acting chief constable of Gwent, Richard Thomas, is quoted as saying: the 18 officers we had hoped to appoint will not now be recruited … The money will be put back into the pot to take up the shortfall in the budget. Perhaps the Minister can stop off to apologise on his way home this weekend to his constituency of Cardiff, South and Penarth.

The problems that a large number of police forces face have been worsened by the fact that the Home Secretary has done precisely what he criticised in the past—he has altered the police grant formula to benefit one police force at the expense of another.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

In a moment.

The Association of Police Authorities agrees, and is particularly critical, as the hon. Gentleman knows—although he glossed over it in his speech—of the decision to increase the Metropolitan police special payment by £21 million, which is an extra 16 per cent.

I know from personal experience the demands that are made on the Metropolitan police in such areas as public order and anti-terrorism. For example, a Metropolitan police study suggested that those responsibilities cost the mounted branch almost £10 million a year. However, that conclusion will not be viewed with much sympathy in North Yorkshire, where it was recently announced that the mounted branch will be closed down because of a lack of funds.

We must ask whether the Metropolitan police's so-called objective assessment was, in fact, objective and independent. If the case for giving more money to London is as strong as the Home Secretary believes, resources should arguably be provided by a special award for London and not by reducing the budget increase for police forces in the rest of the country. On closer examination, however, it appears that Londoners face a 26 per cent. increase in their police council tax precept to cover the £21 million. The residents of London, not the Government, will fund the extra payment. The claim that London alone needs special funding for capital or city-type policing, when other major cities face identical problems of a national nature, is debatable.

The Home Secretary made precisely such a point three years ago, when he said that the formula did not provide sufficient flexibility. When I intervened on him during that debate to ask what he would do about it, the reply that we received was a definition not a solution. Directing more resources to the Metropolitan police makes things worse, because other police forces have even less money with which to deal with unexpected problems.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State, Home Office

I am ever so grateful to the hon. Gentleman for finally giving way. He is rivalling the former right hon. Member for Conwy, Sir Wyn Roberts, who became known as the bardic steamroller for rolling on without taking a break. The hon. Gentleman should surely recognise and acknowledge that North Yorkshire police force will receive a 4 per cent. increase in spending power as a result of the settlement. Only one force will have a cut in its spending power, as I said. That is Surrey, with a cut of 1 per cent. The other authority to receive a difficult settlement is Lincolnshire, as I have acknowledged, with a settlement of 1.1 per cent. Most other forces receive a settlement at or above the national average of 3.7 per cent. The hon. Gentleman ought to stick to facts.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that all the figures that I have quoted are in letters to hon. Members, which I would quite willingly give to him or place in the Library. He is correct to say that North Yorkshire police will receive a 4 per cent. increase. In many respects, we welcome that. It is a marginally higher settlement, but it does not alter my argument that in North Yorkshire there will not be a mounted branch whereas it was argued that London must have a mounted branch and therefore must receive an extra £21 million.

What can we conclude from all this? Judging by what the Home Secretary said when he last spoke in the House on this matter, this police grant settlement fails to address any of the issues that he thought so important that he voted against the proposed grant three years ago. Should that come as any great surprise? I think not. All the evidence shows that increasing police service resources is not a priority for the Government. Not only was there no commitment to provide extra resources in Labour's election manifesto, but precious little has been said on the matter since the election.

In the 1995 police grant debate, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) asked the then shadow Home Secretary how much more money the Labour party thought the Conservative Government should spend on the police. In reply, the right hon. Gentleman suggested that my hon. Friend should wait until the Conservatives were in opposition, when they would hear the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) announce in his Budget details of Labour's spending plans. We are still waiting. We have had not one but two Budgets since the election. There have been two opportunities to tell us about how important resourcing the fight against crime is to the new Government, but there has not been a word about the police—not even a Home Office press release in the Budget pack made available to hon. Members through the Vote Office. Nothing. Not a word. Just silence. So much for Labour being tough on crime.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

To hear the hon. Gentleman speak one would imagine that, when in power, the Tories were very generous to the police. This settlement is virtually identical to the one that they proposed last year. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the number of police officers in England and Wales fell over the last four years of the Tory Government?

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I am coming to that, as the Minister knows, because we have had that argument before, although not during the full police grant debate.

What has the Minister, previously merely the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, had to say? In recent years he has made much of what he saw as the previous Government's failure to deliver an extra 1,000 officers, yet every independent assessment of the Conservative record bears out the claim that funding was increased in real terms—and we now have the Home Secretary's ringing endorsement of that fact in his own press release.

We also know that more police constables were recruited as a result of what the previous Government did. The Minister has referred to the Audit Commission report. I refer him to paragraph 50 of that report, which says: most forces had increases in their funding in real terms between 1993/94 and 1996/97". The report's statistical analysis shows that 32 police forces had real-terms increases and only six had reductions. One of those, by the way, was North Yorkshire. It is interesting that Durham, in which Sedgefield lies, had the biggest increase of all.

The Audit Commission report also confirmed, in paragraph 48: the average time police constables spent in public increased by 4 per cent. between 1994/95 and 1996/97 … Coupled with the increased numbers in police constables, this means significantly more bobbies on the beat". That is not what we say but what the Audit Commission report, which the Minister prayed in aid, said.

The Minister has already confirmed to me in a written answer that between April 1992 and March last year the number of constables increased by 2,322. He says that the number of police officers fell by 469, but it is well known throughout the police service that, by flattening the management structure and civilianising police posts, senior ranks throughout the police service were intentionally reduced. In the Metropolitan police alone, between March 1994 and March 1996 the number of senior officers of the rank of chief inspector and above fell by 255. It is in those ranks, not among police constables on the streets, that the number of police officers fell.

That pattern applies throughout the country. The settlement that we are being asked to approve today seems certain to maintain the trend of a flatter management style as police authorities look for budget savings and reassess their priorities while doing everything possible to maintain front-line services.

Indeed, the Home Secretary has encouraged that process by demanding greater efficiency. That is what the Minister said today. We agree with that. Perhaps he can tell us how many police posts he expects to be civilianised during the lifetime of this Parliament. He knows that, as a matter of necessity, many will be, and he must also know that that will mean fewer police officers. However, what matters to the public is how many constables there are on the streets.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

As the Minister of State has already conceded, Surrey is one of the counties that has been hit by a cut in police grant. Does my hon. Friend agree that people in Surrey will be concerned because, unlike many other counties, including Durham, they will not see a continuing increase in the number of constables on the beat because the Labour Government have broken many of the promises that they gave earlier and cut funding for counties such as Surrey?

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

Certainly the people of Surrey will wonder why they are paying a 28 per cent. council tax increase so that more police officers can be available in the Metropolitan police district, while they get fewer.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State, Home Office

In replying to his hon. Friend, will the hon. Member acknowledge that it is not the present settlement that affects the figure for Surrey, but the application of the needs-based formula, which the previous Government put in place?

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

No, it is not. The Home Secretary has decided arbitrarily—as the Minister has told us today—to remove rule 1 and rule 3.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

No. The Minister has asked me a question and I have given him the answer. He must know that that is what has happened. He himself said that that was the cause of the reductions in Lincolnshire and in Surrey. Who made the decision? It was this Government—not the last Government. He must take responsibility for that decision.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

No, I will not give way again. I have given the Minister an answer. He is putting forward a sterile argument. Rule 1 and rule 3 were introduced to ensure that every police authority got a fair share of the increased money. The fact is that those two rules have been removed, and that is the cause of the problems in Surrey and in Lincolnshire.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

No. I must make progress. Many hon. Members want to speak in this short debate. There are many matters yet to be considered.

A key factor in the increase in the number of constables to which I referred was the initiative by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), in 1995 to provide the resources to enable the police service to recruit up to 5,000 more officers over three years. Although that initiative was derided by the Minister and by Labour in opposition, we now find that the Government have provided the money for the third stage of the programme.

Let me be clear about this. The Opposition warmly welcome the Government's decision to provide the additional £40 million for the third slice of extra money. On that, at least, there is agreement, and it has been generally welcomed in the police service as well. I only wish that I could be more convinced of the Government's enthusiasm. Their attitude to this project is best summed up by what the Minister said a year ago. He said that the Government were not providing the resources or putting in the money to meet the Prime Minister's promise."—[Official Report, 29 January 1997; Vol. 289, c. 462.] That was just plain wrong. The assistant chief constable of Gwent clearly thinks that it was wrong, too. He had the money for the 18 officers he planned to recruit, but the Government—through this settlement—have taken it away.

Doubtless the Minister discovered how wrong he was when he examined the figures in preparation for this year's police grant. He found a specific grant of £60 million for extra officers which is replicated in this grant settlement document. Along with the £40 million extra to which I have referred, that means that the police benefit to the tune of £100 million this year as a direct consequence of the former Prime Minister's initiative. The importance of this to police budgets cannot be overstated; it is acknowledged by the fact that this £100 million is excluded from capping limits.

On the question of capping, the police element of the council tax is not sufficiently transparent. This settlement produces vast discrepancies across the country. How can it make sense for residents in Staffordshire to face a 32 per cent. rise in what they pay towards the police through the council tax when, in the neighbouring West Midlands area, residents are likely to see a 7 per cent. cut? In Surrey, residents will pay 28 per cent. more, whereas in Kent there will be a 5 per cent. reduction. In Cumbria, there will be a rise of 24 per cent., yet in Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland there will be a reduction.

More to the point, research from the Library estimates that, of the £63 million increase in overall spending power for the Metropolitan police, £37 million will be funded by council tax payers; almost 60 per cent. of the extra money will be met by residents. What is undeniably perverse about this year's settlement is that, in some areas, the police element of the council tax will go down while the police will be forced to make cuts in their planned budgets. Those cuts inevitably mean that money supposedly for additional officers will be used to help maintain existing commitments. That is why the Minister has made no predictions regarding police numbers, and why I believe we shall never persuade him to do so.

As if all that is not bad enough, the Association of Police Authorities has confirmed that support for capital projects has been cut by 12.7 per cent., or £26 million. It is shameful that the Government have done that and how the Minister can possibly justify that cut in the face of his past statements beggars belief. The obvious lesson is that criticism is easy, but having the responsibility for taking hard decisions is much more difficult. The Minister should not be in the least surprised at being reminded of his more outspoken remarks when in opposition. Judged by what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends said in the past, this police grant settlement does not pass muster.

Judging by their past remarks about police services, we cannot doubt that Ministers are fully aware of what is required to sustain and improve the quality of the police service. What is in doubt is their commitment. There is precious little evidence that supporting the police service with extra money and not just fine words is a priority for new Labour. We in the House today and those in the country at large need to be clear that the problems for the police services and the increases in council tax bills that will flow from this settlement are the responsibility of the Government and no one else. New Labour's manifesto may have been short on specific promises, but their rhetoric and conduct in recent years has generated high expectations. From what they have said in the past, we know what those expectations are; sadly, they will not be fulfilled by this grant settlement.

Several hon. Members rose

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

The Front Bench speeches have now taken 48 minutes of a 90-minute debate. I appeal to hon. Members to make brief speeches so that I can try to accommodate all those who are seeking to catch my eye.

Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Labour, Lincoln 5:11, 4 February 1998

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's clear commitment on behalf of the Government to tackle and prevent crime through good policing as well as through legislative measures. Those are the actions of a responsible Government.

I regret that I am the isolated voice of local concern in the House today as the only Lincolnshire Member of Parliament present. As we have heard, Lincolnshire is one of only two police authorities that are losing out—to the tune of more than £2.5 million in 1998–99. In December, because of that, I made urgent arrangements to meet my hon. Friend the Minister and at our meeting I set out my concerns about cuts in Government funding, which we in Lincolnshire fear might cost the police force up to 80 officers—a number that we can ill afford to lose. It is understood that there are many heavy pressures on spending and lines need to be drawn, but I regret that the effect of where the Lincolnshire line is drawn is that council tax payers in my constituency will pay more, but receive less. That is most unwelcome.

We are in that worrying position because the previous Government established a formula that did not take accurate account of Lincolnshire' s sparsity of population or needs. For two years, they applied special rules—for political favour, I believe—which have now raised expectations. I would prefer that the previous Government had tackled the issue of a formula that treated Lincolnshire unfairly, but they did not, and we are now where we are.

The outcome of my meeting with the Minister was that he agreed to meet the Lincolnshire police authority and to re-examine the funding formula—assurances I was pleased to secure. The Lincolnshire police authority made an excellent case and alerted the Minister to the value for money offered by the Lincolnshire police authority. The cost of policing in Lincolnshire is 28p per person per day, compared with a national average of 36p. Despite having one police officer for every 500 people, when the national average is one to 400, the apparent implication of the grant formula is that we have too many police officers.

I would not accept that, and nor would the many people and organisations who have made heartfelt representations to me, including the Lincolnshire Tenants Forum, which represents tenants groups across Lincolnshire and works closely with the police in an effort to combat crime and anti-social behaviour. In addition, the chamber of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Lincoln co-operative society and many other organisations have made concerned representations to me.

Like many other hon. Members, I receive representations from constituents who, as groups of neighbours, come to me as their Member of Parliament to express their concern about local policing. I shall briefly quote a letter I sent to my local police superintendent, who provides an excellent service. The letter was prompted by a group of people, at their wits' end, who came to me, and it illustrates the concerns felt in Lincoln. I wrote that I had been approached by four households who are greatly concerned about the behaviour of a family who lives close to them … The group that came to see me believe the parents … are involved in drug-dealing and allege that they use the empty house to the left of their residence as a repository for stolen goods … the two elder children of the family are apparently left to run wild about the estate, having both been expelled from school. They and their younger siblings regularly climb out of the bedroom windows to roam the streets in the early hours of the morning. All those who came to see me spoke of being terrorised. The children damage their homes and property, and those of other neighbours, on a regular basis. They also shout abuse at residents"— and spit at an elderly man who is harassed in the street. The trouble has apparently gone on for seven years. We cannot allow that to continue and we must tackle such situations. I am worried that the impact of the settlement on the Lincolnshire police may curtail their ability to do so.

This week is national facial injuries week, as hon. Members may be aware. On Monday, I joined a specialist consultant and a senior police officer at a Lincoln school to help raise awareness of the dangers of the abuse of alcohol and the link to dangerous driving and violent attacks. The police officer spelled out his own experience and, in so doing, may have prevented some of those young people from suffering severe facial and emotional damage or even death. We want our police officers to do that sort of work and do not want funding to be cut and our service to become simply a law-enforcement body. The sort of preventative work and liaison in which I engaged on Monday is what a modem and efficient community police force is all about. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that point.

My hon. Friend referred to the Audit Commission report, in which we in Lincolnshire can read that we have a below average number of police officers available for ordinary duty; a below-average proportion of uniformed constables' time spent in public; and a below average expenditure on policing per head of population. Yet I, like the Minister, commend Lincolnshire police for their efficiency and effectiveness. I wish to put on record my constituents' gratitude for the police's dedication and the hard work carried out, not only by uniformed members of the Lincolnshire police force, but by those who are not in uniform. All of them frequently extend themselves well beyond the call of duty.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his agreement to my request for a review of the grant formula, and we have heard about some of the changes. However, I have a plea to make to him. The urgency and worry for Lincolnshire police authority and my constituents in Lincoln is that our level of policing cannot continue and that we shall suffer, lose confidence and no longer be properly policed. I wish to endorse the forcible arguments that have been advanced for transitional support and a special capital grant, which I regret have not found favour with my hon. Friend the Minister.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke 5:19, 4 February 1998

As time is limited, I shall be brief. I shall not apologise for considering police funding nationally from a Hampshire perspective. There, I believe that it can be said that the prevailing view of the 1998–99 settlement is summed up in the words "Appearances can deceive". I do not believe that that view is confined to Hampshire alone. On the surface, the settlement does not seem unreasonable: it allows an increase in spending of 3.8 per cent. or £6.9 million, and the provisional capping criteria allow maximum spending of £187 million. Together with a few bits and pieces, that brings the total spending to £190.3 million. But appearances can deceive.

Hampshire—along perhaps with other police authorities—is set to suffer from a contradiction in the settlement. In the settlement, the Government recognise the increasing needs of the police force. They consequently and rightly express that recognition in the form of an increase in grant—I support and applaud the Government for that. However, what is highly questionable is that, in the case of Hampshire and, I dare say, elsewhere, the Government have not allowed and are not allowing a similar increase in police spending. That absurd situation has been created by the provisional capping criteria. The simple truth is that those criteria contradict the increase in the grant.

The point has been put simply to me by members of the police authority: it is perverse to a degree. By budgeting at the capping level, the council tax for the Hampshire police authority will have to be reduced by about 2.8 to 3 per cent. I acknowledge that that is of benefit to council tax payers in the short term, and I welcome the increase in grant, but the police authority sees the absurdity of the situation and is already making that point to the Minister and his officials. Hampshire police authority is arguing that the capping limit should be set at a level that would at least maintain the current level of the police element of the council tax.

We are arguing—I hope that the Minister will pay attention to this—that there should, at the very least, be a cash freeze in the police element of the council tax in Hampshire. It would be acceptable politically; on the whole, people regard money spent on law and order as money well spent and, in the case of Hampshire, next year it would yield an additional amount of almost £1 million. At the margin, that would make a significant difference, given the need to direct funds from the revenue account to finance unavoidable capital commitments.

That matter leads me naturally to my second and final point, which is more specific to Hampshire. I hope that the Government will take note of it. I make the point not only because of its obvious constituency interest, but because it affects the whole of the county of Hampshire. As the Minister will know, the funding situation in Hampshire has been compounded by the discovery of a serious asbestos problem in Basingstoke police station. The problem will require a total rebuild; it was unforeseen; and resolving it will cost about £3.2 million. It will place an enormous burden on the funding of Hampshire police authority.

The police authority is already in touch with the Minister's officials and is pleading for borrowing approval to help to pay for the work. I take this opportunity to endorse that plea. I hope that the Government will respond positively. The unforeseen development is a further reason why Hampshire authority is requesting a relaxation in the capping limit.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of Hampshire, I am sure that he would like to join me in congratulating the police authority in Hampshire. During the last four years of the Tory Government, when national figures were going down, the Liberal Democrat-led police authority was able to increase police numbers by 225 policemen and 311 civilians—a major breakthrough in policing. What the Government were talking about nationally, we achieved on the ground in Hampshire, but with no help from the Government.

Photo of Mr Andrew Hunter Mr Andrew Hunter Conservative, Basingstoke

I agree with half of what the hon. Gentleman said. I acknowledge that, during the time that he presided over Hampshire county council, there was a substantial increase in the establishment of the county constabulary. I have frequently congratulated him on presiding over that, and I do so again.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman because he consistently refuses to acknowledge that, not just when he looked after the county council, but throughout the 18 years of Conservative government, Hampshire benefited from a 115.9 per cent. real-terms increase in funding from central Government. Many of the great achievements made by the police authorities of Hampshire were achieved on the back of that increased central Government funding. That does not detract from the fact that I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on what he achieved in that respect while he was leader of the county council, and I would not wish to give that impression.

I plead with the Minister seriously to take on board the two different needs of the Hampshire police authority. First, I make a plea for a raising of the provisional capping limit that has been announced. Secondly, I make a plea that the borrowing approval that the police authority is seeking to help fund the additional, unforeseen expenditure that will be needed owing to the discovery of asbestos at Basingstoke police station will receive a positive response. There is much else that I could say, but I rest my case on a final plea to the Minister to take those points seriously.

Photo of Ian Cawsey Ian Cawsey Labour, Brigg and Goole 5:27, 4 February 1998

I shall make only a brief contribution to the debate, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak and time is limited.

I wanted to say something about my own experience of the subject. For four years before entering the House, I had the honour of being the chairman of the Humberside police authority. I therefore sat through many anxious debates as settlements were made. It strikes me that there is good and bad in all police settlements; perhaps whether one shows joy or indignation depends on which side of the Speaker's Chair one is sitting.

There is merit in the settlement announced today and I, for one, certainly welcome it. I have always found the subject of funding and police officers interesting. From my experience, I am not necessarily sure that, if my police authority received extra funding, that money would always be best spent simply on extra police officers. The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made the point rather well when he said that flattening structures and civilianisation were also involved. It is odd when political parties chase after X hundred or X thousand extra police officers; what we want are effective and efficient police services and police authorities. We might debate whether that means more police officers, more civilianisation, more equipment or better training, but really it involves a mixture of all of them. I welcome the settlement, in as much as it will allow police authorities to make the decision for themselves.

I think that all hon. Members will agree that the subject of pensions is perhaps the most significant issue facing police authorities. I remember attending a seminar on the future of police funding last year, or the year before, where it was said that, if nothing changed—my hon. Friend the Minister has already changed something this year—by the year 2020, police authorities would be spending more than half their budget on police pensions, not policing. The matter should be dealt with quickly. I welcomed the Minister's comment that he is working keenly on it and we can expect an announcement soon. We must have a clear way forward.

I was the chairman of the police authority when the previous Government moved from what was basically establishment-based funding to the formula funding, and I was a strong supporter of that. I applauded the previous Home Secretary for doing it. Although he was no political friend of mine, he was right to do it. We are right to continue that process. It was always going to be difficult because, inevitably, it would move resources around.

I had no great objection to the additional rules that were introduced last year, because they gave a degree of protection. It must be borne in mind, however, that the additional rules did not put any extra money in; they simply redistributed the entire cake in a slightly different way. The Surreys and the Lincolnshires can claim to be badly treated because they are not getting transitional relief or additional rules this year, but it must be accepted that there are police authorities that the formula has identified as having less money than they should have had. That is what additional rule 1 and 3 did last year.

The formula provides that certain police authorities should get a bigger slice of the cake—we can argue about the size of the cake—and extra rules were put in to reduce that, so that there was some relief for the losing authorities. I had no objection to the previous Government doing that for one year, because it was a big move in one go, but it must be recognised that, where the formula has identified need, resources should follow.

Let me add a personal plea on the formula. I hope that the Minister will address the area cost adjustment, which, in police terms, is extremely unfair. There are national wage agreements for police services and civilian staff, and I see little basis for an area cost adjustment to move resources to just one part of the country.

There is a romantic myth that we should all like to become a reality—more police officers on the street, walking down the street endlessly and reassuring us, which is part of the police's business. The Police Foundation conducted research that showed that a police officer on the beat would come across a crime only once every six years, or only four or five times in his entire career. If that is the case, questions must be asked about the best use of police officers. That is why money must be spent in a targeted way.

The impact of crime on the public, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) spoke about in the context of her constituency, is a matter of community safety. That was identified by Morgan in his report several years ago. It is a matter not just for the police and the police authority, but for the wider community—the local authority, private business, the voluntary sector. The entire community must work together to ensure that there is less crime and less fear of crime on the streets. I know that we are not here to discuss the Crime and Disorder Bill, but I welcome the fact that the Government want to move in that direction.

The police grant settlement is only one tiny dot on the entire picture of law and order in Britain. The settlement is a step in the right direction, and I am happy to commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Office) 5:33, 4 February 1998

As I rise to offer the Liberal Democrat response to the report, I am once again confronted by the strange role reversal of the Labour party in government and the Conservatives in opposition.

On these Benches, we are thinking of equipping ourselves with simultaneous translation equipment in the manner of the European Parliament, so that, when we hear the Minister telling us that this is a perfectly adequate settlement, that is translated as, "I was only pretending when I called for more resources in opposition"; and when the Conservative spokesman attacks the settlement as inadequate, that is faithfully rendered as, "We were only pretending when we spent years arguing that similar settlements were perfectly good."

I welcome any contribution to the debate that uses the popular phrase "the legacy of 18 years of Tory Government," which can be read as "an excuse for absolutely anything, which we will use just as long as we can get away with it."

The first thing that we must be clear about with regard to this year's settlement is who will pay for the 3.7 per cent. increase that the police forces are getting. The Government have said that they expect the average increase in police authority precepts to be greater than the rate of inflation. The Minister's estimate of £5 on the precept for a band D property actually represents an 8.7 per cent. increase.

It is unfortunate that, once again, the local council tax payer is hit in order to maintain the fiction that taxes are not being increased, when what is really meant is that income tax is not being increased.

The Minister found this such a shameful funding mechanism that, in last year's debate, he was not sure whether to call it institutional theft or another Tory tax rise"—[Official Report, 29 January 1997; Vol. 289, c. 460.] My translator tells me that that should now read "a sensible and necessary measure to keep the Government's pledges on tax, made necessary by 18 years of Tory rule".

With an increase in the police precept above the rate of inflation, the public might reasonably believe that they would see an increase in the number of police officers in their areas, but that is unlikely if last year's example is anything to go by. The 3.7 per cent. budget increase delivered by the Tories last year led to fewer police officers. There has been a fall of 300 officers from the March 1997 figure of 125,051 to the September 1997 figure of 124,751.

Last year, the Minister enjoyed attacking the Conservative Government for their "con trick" over police numbers. His party was careful not to make a commitment of its own on police numbers, but the clear implication of the Labour argument was that falling police numbers were a problem. In new Labour-speak, that may be translated as "size does not matter".

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the situation in relation to the Greater Manchester police? Year after year through those 18 years of Tory misrule, the chief police officer wanted an extra 120 officers, who were denied to him by the Home Office. We now find that there has been a further fall in the number of police officers since the Labour Government came to power. Does my hon. Friend agree that the efforts of councils such as Stockport to improve crime prevention measures and to work with the police to fund special constables are undermined by such outcomes, and that what matters are the outcomes, not the inputs of cash?

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Office)

I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution, which adds local colour by describing the problems that people are facing on the ground.

The police establishment, as the Minister pointed out, is now a matter for the police forces themselves, since the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, which the Minister was then happy to criticise. He told us that the change to locally decided establishments was the result of constant scrutiny by his vigilant Opposition, and that the Conservatives had introduced it as a smokescreen to cover up cuts in police numbers.

I hope that the Minister will be able to rise above the low motives of the previous Government and not simply dismiss concerns about police numbers as someone's else's problem. We have enough "blame someone else" disease in agriculture, without bringing it into the Home Office as well.

It is common sense that the principal factor in deciding the police establishment is the level of funding, and that remains the Government's problem.

Police effectiveness is not just a function of resources. The recent Audit Commission report is a timely reminder that effectiveness is about management and how we use those resources. I shall single out from the report the performance of my local force, the South Yorkshire constabulary, which achieved very good results in spite of a relatively low level of funding for a metropolitan force.

My experience from talking to the South Yorkshire force and from colleagues in other areas is that important changes are taking place and are bringing improvements. Local policing plans are helping to set clear targets and priorities. The devolution of responsibility to divisions is helping. Investments in community policing are reinforcing our tradition of policing by consent—a tradition that may have suffered in the past from the perception that the police were remote agents who arrived by car only at a time of crisis.

The Liberal Democrats support those moves. We want to see a police force firmly based in our local communities and working with other agencies. We believe that the best way to help potential victims is to prevent crime in the first place.

In accepting the broad outcome of this year's settlement, we want to raise with the Minister certain points that give us concern about future settlements. The first is the issue of police pensions, which the Minister mentioned. The time bomb has been ticking away for some time. We look forward to a Government announcement on when they will issue a consultation paper setting out the possible reforms.

The second key concern is the cap on the Home Office budget in general—the set of handcuffs that the Government have placed on themselves by sticking to the Tory spending plans.

The criminal justice system, by its nature, is demand-led, and there is growth in particular areas, such as prison populations. If we are able to increase police effectiveness, we can expect to see that demand grow further still: more prisoners will come on stream as more criminals are caught by an increasingly effective police force. The Home Secretary has said that he can deal with that increase only by moving resources within the capped budgets. We seek the Minister's reassurance that police budgets will not be damaged by the demand for extra spending elsewhere.

Thirdly, we hope that the Minister will address capital funding. While it is not covered specifically by the report, the 12.7 per cent. cut—down from £205 million to £179 million next year—will place further pressure on police budgets. The cost of supporting older plant will be higher, and investment priorities may divert funds from front-line resources.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will take on board the new demands that the police will face. There is a welcome trend towards community policing, and a series of measures in the Crime and Disorder Bill will require the police to put in place and enforce orders. Speeding up the youth justice system will mean the devotion of considerable police resources to joint working with the courts and other services. We hope that that fresh officer time will be funded through police settlements, and the fall in police numbers is extremely worrying in that context.

The Liberal Democrats do not seek to obstruct the settlement today, but I hope that the Minister will take our concerns on board and enter a constructive dialogue that leads to greater support for our first-class police forces, which provide a public service of which we can rightly be proud.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 5:40, 4 February 1998

I shall do my best to present the main points of my speech in the short time available—as usual, the speech that one does not deliver is the best.

On 2 November, the Minister wrote to all north Wales Members of Parliament, saying that money was tight and that the Government had inherited a very difficult and challenging situation. I shall give him some free legal advice: if one inherits a burdensome bequest, one can always relinquish it. The Minister could start by re-examining spending limits. I agree that Government money is tight—it always will be. I know that the Minister will fight his corner with the Treasury—the people who control much more of Government than is apparent at first glance.

The settlement offered to the North Wales police is disappointing. The North Wales force is extremely efficient and well run, but the money that it has been offered is clearly insufficient. The Home Office expenditure forecasting group reported an unavoidable need for growth of about 3.9 per cent. plus inflation. Therefore, there is a considerable funding gap between what is needed and what has been offered—in short, there is an unavoidable shortfall of £1.7 million or 2.5 per cent. That will mean further cuts, and more internal efficiency savings.

The North Wales police force is very well managed. A major restructuring exercise undertaken in recent years found that some senior ranks were not necessary, as the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said. The "flattening out" process has gone well in north Wales, and has produced substantial savings in many areas.

I urge the Minister to re-examine the settlement for the north Wales force. The cuts cannot go on for ever. Rural police stations have been told that officers may travel only 15 miles in their motor vehicles. That absolutely incredible position is one result of the yearly squeeze on resources.

The current approach must change. All hon. Members are concerned about policing: it is a core service. Some people claim that crime is not a major issue in rural areas, but unfortunately that situation is changing. Therefore, the sparsity and rurality elements of the settlement must be re-examined. The day population of north Wales is hugely inflated during the summer months, and perhaps the settlement does not sufficiently recognise that fact.

I do not want to be too grudging: I welcome the Minister's opening remarks and his reference to research into the sparsity issue and policing in our inner cities. I hope that that research will bring forth some urgent changes, as the annual squeeze on police authorities is making life well nigh impossible. As a result of the review, I hope that we can look forward to a change in the rules that govern the calculation of the formula. It is vital to maintain rural services. The police in rural and inner-city areas must be able to perform their duties adequately.

I welcome the review, and 1 hope that the Minister will press it forward, so that we may be sure of adequate policing throughout the United Kingdom.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State, Home Office 5:44, 4 February 1998

I congratulate all hon. Members who have participated in the debate on packing a great deal into a short space of time, and on raising many issues. It is impossible to answer all the questions, but I shall reply to specific points—particularly regarding local issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) was the first to make representations to me—so it was a first for us both. She pressed the case for Lincolnshire vigorously. The Lincolnshire force is caught by the inevitable consequences of the needs-based formula introduced by the previous Government, which, to be fair, commands general support among police and police authorities across the country.

The former Home Secretary made the mistake of awarding a grant that appeared to provide additional money over a period of years, but was intended to ease the situation for only a single year. As I said initially, we shall curtail the use of the special rules in order to remove that distortion. It is better to know exactly where one stands—even if that creates difficulties—so that one can predict future problems.

My hon. Friend referred to a nightmare family who have harassed a particular community for seven years. That is precisely why we are introducing the antisocial behaviour order in the Crime and Disorder Bill. One can imagine the amount of time and effort that police, local authorities, local councillors, Members of Parliament, and perhaps other agencies have devoted to that problem in the past seven years. The new order will give authorities the power to prevent a repetition of that sort of behaviour. That is important.

One may control the water level in a bath by turning off the tap as well as by pulling the plug—I hope hon. Members can follow my analogy. We must provide police with the resources and the tools to do the job in terms of legislation, powers to the courts and so on.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) acknowledged that we have increased the settlement to the Hampshire force by 3.8 per cent. I appreciate the fact that specific events, such as finding asbestos in a police station, can cause unexpected problems—as do certain revenue pressures, such as a major incident, a new road or pursuing serious inquiries.

There is no way in which we can provide resources to deal with such problems without allowing for incredible variations in the settlement—not least because we would have to predict what might occur. We shall examine the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, but I cannot make any promises about what assistance we might provide. It is worth mentioning that we shall support four capital building projects in Hampshire in 1998–99.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, offered to provide a translation service. I was tempted to respond by saying that his comments should be translated as, "I was not in power then and I am not in power now, so don't take anything I say seriously." However, I do take the hon. Gentleman seriously, and he made some important points.

The hon. Gentleman described the criminal justice system as demand-led. One problem is that we have allowed the criminal justice system to be completely demand-led. It is a fact that incidents occur when they occur, and people commit crimes when they commit crimes.

However, we can do something about crime levels—for example, we can nip problems in the bud with young offenders. I know that the hon. Gentleman and I agree about that—as we discovered in a debate a few months ago. We are not only providing the police with the resources that enable them to do their job properly, but are creating an environment in which, with other partners, they can tackle crime and the causes of crime. We have introduced measures that enable the police to do their job much more efficiently.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) intervened briefly. It is worth pointing out that, up to now, any cuts have been the result of the previous Government's financial settlements. This year, we are giving the Greater Manchester police an increase of 3.8 per cent., slightly above the national average.

To the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) I would say that we would all like more, but 3.8 per cent. is the increase in spending power that we are giving the North Wales police. I visited the force recently, and a number of partnership developments are bearing fruit, such as the prevention of crime in Rhyl, or the work done with the local authority in Colwyn Bay and Llandudno. They are positive measures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) brought to bear his insight as an experienced chair of a police authority. He was right in what he said about the efficient use of money. That, rather than the distortion offered by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), was the point of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's comments in announcing the settlement. It is a general settlement, but we also need to consider the efficiency with which the police use the resources available to them. I urge the hon. Gentleman to re-read my right hon. Friend's press release.

Last year, for the 1997–98 financial year, there was a settlement of 3.7 per cent. This year, there is a settlement of 3.7 per cent. The difference is that last year's settlement was based on an inflation rate of 3.1 per cent., but this year's is based on an inflation rate of 2.7 per cent. That is the difference, and that shows the greater generosity of this Government compared with that of the previous Government.

The hon. Member for Ryedale said that the settlement will mean that council tax payers in London will have to pay more than in previous years. That is fair, given that the Government will still meet between 80 and 85 per cent. of police expenditure in the capital. The percentage of police spending raised from council tax in the Metropolitan Police district is estimated to be 12.9 per cent. in 1998–99. That is lower than the English average of 14.5 per cent., and a lot lower than that for any other force in the south-east of England.

Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should compare like with like, looking at fairness and not just where the increase applies. If he does so, he will see that the people of the Metropolitan Police area have received a fair settlement.

The hon. Gentleman said that criticism is easy, although he managed to make it sound difficult. We need only compare the previous Government's promise in 1992 to increase police numbers by 1,000—their choice, not ours—and their promise later to increase them by another 2,000, a total of 3,000, with their delivery of a cut of 469. The hon. Gentleman may say, by their deeds shall we know them, but we certainly know the Conservatives by their failure to deliver on their promises during the many years that they had the opportunity to deliver.

The Conservatives had the opportunity to put their money where their mouth was, and they failed. They failed to deliver their promises. They failed to be tough on crime and the causes of crime. They failed the British police and the British people. In contrast, this Government have made a good settlement, at a time of considerable financial restraint.

We are also taking other steps to work in partnership with the police, and to enable the police to work in partnership with local authorities and the community to deliver a high standard of policing and to improve it, so that we can see the problems of crime, which have bedevilled our communities for far too long, tackled efficiently by a partnership between Government and the police.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 1998–99 (HC 492), which was laid before this House on 2nd February, be approved.