I met police authority representatives or Members of Parliament from six force areas during the consultation period about next year's settlement. Full account was also taken of 63 written representations covering 32 police authority areas, including those from Essex Members of Parliament. The funding settlement was finalised on
May I note that there seems to be a peculiar noise in the Chamber, Mr. Speaker?
Is the Minister aware that the Association of Chief Police Officers has calculated that following the Home Office settlement, there is a funding shortfall of £250 million? In the debate in Westminster Hall last week, I shared with her my concern about police in Southend being stretched. With reference to Essex in particular, other than high council tax increases and cutting police numbers, can she think of any other way of addressing the serious shortfall in funding?
The hon. Gentleman mentions that we had a useful debate in Westminster Hall last week. I promised to reflect on what he said, provided that he got things into perspective. I said to him that Essex had had a very generous settlement this time in comparison with other forces. If we had applied the formula, Essex would have received £15 million less than it did. Because we had a flat-rate settlement of 3.25 per cent. for every force, it received an extra £15 million. It has also had 149 extra police officers since 1997, and an extra 483 police staff and 91 community support officers to patrol local areas. The increase in the county's precept was the second lowest in the country, and it was an extra 12p a week for excellent policing services in Essex.
Is my hon. Friend aware that when she meets representatives of police authorities, she will receive a positive response from West Yorkshire police authority? With Mr. Speaker's permission, I shall quote a letter from Councillor Mark Burns-Williamson, chair of West Yorkshire police authority, who said:
I have written to . . . the Minister of State . . . expressing our appreciation for this support from the Home Office."
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the appreciation of her police force for the action taken by the Home Office. I am sure she knows that over the past three years there has been a 30 per cent. increase in funding for the police service—a 17 per cent. increase in real terms. That is a tremendous record of investment in the police service, because we know how much it is valued by local communities such as my hon. Friend's. Right across the country, policing is crucial to building safer communities on which our people depend.
Order. There seems to be a faulty air conditioning unit, which is causing excessive noise. Will the Officers of the House see that it is turned off?
I am grateful to the Minister for her detailed response on funding for the police in Essex. Is she aware that one of the results of the lack of funding for police in Essex is that the Rochford and Castle Point division of that constabulary is currently running at 27.7 per cent. below police establishment, which is causing enormous problems of street disorder and crime? What does she intend to do to make sure that she gets the Castle Point and Rochford division back up to its full establishment on the street?
Despite the noise, we still get a lot of hot air in the Chamber, Mr. Speaker.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a question later on the Order Paper, so I took the trouble to make inquiries of his police service this morning. I can tell him that he has a special operation there consisting of a sergeant and 10 extra officers dedicated to tackling antisocial behaviour. They are doing a tremendous amount of work in his local area to tackle the problems of youth nuisance, intimidation and harassment, and I am sure he will be glad to have that extra force in his constituency.
Follow that from my hon. Friend the Minister of State.
My hon. Friend Hugh Bayley knows that the decision rests with the police authority, but in our consultation paper, "Policing: Building Safer Communities Together", which we published on
The police precept in North Yorkshire has more than doubled in the past three years, but not all the extra money is being spent on front-line policing, which is what the public want. Although we now have the largest ever number of police officers in North Yorkshire, people in the central area, which includes the city of York and suffers from half the crime in the county, have less than half the police resources. People would like to see a police authority that represents their views and ensures that resources are placed where they are most needed in the county.
I understand that minority political representation is not available from the city, and I think that that is a great shame, as the strength of any reform of the police service will be to maintain the consistency and continuity that come from drawing together people of good intent, whatever their politics, to form a consensus behind political priorities and investment. I hope that the North Yorkshire force will take note of my hon. Friend's plea and recognise that, where there have been additional strains in North Yorkshire, such as in the policing of Menwith Hill, the Home Office has been prepared to put in extra resources to ensure that policing is not damaged, including in places such as York.
The Home Secretary will be aware that it has been extremely difficult to reach a settlement this year in the west midlands, where there has been a 12.5 per cent. precept and the force has had to dip into reserves to the tune of £5 million. Does he accept that, unless he looks carefully at the arrangement for next year, it will not be possible to reach a settlement in the west midlands without either a massive increase in the precept or a diminution in the police service?
There has been a particular challenge for major urban and metropolitan forces, not least because, after massive representations, we agreed to a flat-rate increase in the police grant. [Interruption.] [Hon. Members: "Bravo."] Bravo indeed. Obviously, there have been very substantial additions to the police grant in the west midlands through the crime fighting fund, Airwave and other activities, but I accept entirely the cry from the west midlands, which has a good police force that has done a great deal of imaginative work and made a substantial difference to policing at a local level.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is important that the police should be accountable to people who are paying the police precept? One way of doing that is through the community police forums. In West Yorkshire, the police authority is reducing the number of police forums. I consider that a move in the wrong direction in terms of trying to secure police accountability. Does he accept that there has to be more accountability and not less, as there appears to be in West Yorkshire?
Following the consultation, we will produce a further document with more positive proposals on which we will consult in relation to accountability, responsiveness and availability at local level. We believe not only that it is good that the police themselves should be accountable at each level of the service, but that engaging the public is a very positive way of ensuring that they can reduce crime. In areas where such positive engagement has occurred, there is a material difference in terms of collaboration with the community, the preparedness of witnesses to come forward and the success of the police in reducing not only antisocial behaviour, but the volume of crime.
The Home Secretary and his police Minister claim credit for all sorts of achievements—they recite figures about extra police officers in every constituency—yet at the same time, they criticise the police authorities for raising their precepts by considerably more than the amount of extra money that they received from the Home Office. Now the Home Secretary is talking about the principle of accountability. Is he talking about the accountability of the same police authorities that have to submit their annual policing plan to him, after which he has the power to send it back, a bit like a child's homework, over and over again until they get it right? Are these the same police authorities whose control over expenditure has shrunk over the years as their budgets have been held back while centrally determined ring-fenced budgets have increased by anything up to 50 per cent. a year, as has happened in some cases? How can he really talk about increasing accountability if he is not going to give the authorities some responsibility for what actually goes on in their area so that they can take the credit or, if necessary, the blame? Will he tell us what powers he is going to give back to police authorities?
I was not aware that I had taken any powers away from police authorities. The hon. Gentleman did not list a single responsibility that I have taken away from police authorities or any changes that I have made to their ability to hold chief constables to account. Police authorities often grumble that they are not responsible for holding the police chief and his senior officers to account, and the hon. Gentleman cannot have it one way but not the other.
I shall quickly deal with the individual issues. First, we have not held down precepts. Secondly, we have not criticised police authorities about precepts—the final precepts have not even been announced yet, so even if we wanted to criticise police authorities, we could not do so. Thirdly, we have been working with police forces. Fourthly, I did not claim credit for what has happened in the west midlands or north or west Yorkshire; I commended West Midlands police on its actions and said that police on the ground working with local people made the difference. We have made a difference by putting resources in. Yes, the ring-fenced crime fighting fund has led to an additional 11,000 police officers, 3,500 community support officers and 10,000 extra civilian staff compared with the loss of 1,100 police, no community support officers and no proposals for investment in civilianisation that occurred in the years leading up to 1997, which is precisely why the Conservative party lost.
My right hon. Friend knows that I welcome the Government's improvements to policing in this country since 1997. However, a blueprint for policing in Lancashire was published last October, and this year the precept has increased by 15 per cent., which will not meet the demands and expectations of Lancashire police. Lancashire police believed that with a Labour Government it would get better policing, which it could not get under a Tory Government.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I am pleased by the way in which the chair of Lancashire police authority has led the reform agenda and made changes at a local level, including measures to increase social cohesion, which is so important in my hon. Friend's constituency.