Police Grant Report

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:47 pm on 3rd February 2010.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield 2:47 pm, 3rd February 2010

We would have to ask our gurus, such as my hon. Friend Dr. Cable, about that specific point. In the long-term, following exactly the theme that Mr. McNulty was talking about earlier, we would look to transfer most of the control and funding of and fundraising through local precepts for policing to local communities. It would be their decision, along with duly elected police authorities, what to do with that, how to do that and what the priorities were. As was correctly pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman earlier, the policing requirements in an area of inner London can be very different from those in a rural area, a shire area, a small town such as Chesterfield and so on.

If the special grant funded allocations were to be withdrawn in years to come, we would see a dramatic drop in police numbers, even though core funding was, on the face of it, being maintained. As the chief constable of Manchester has pointed out, one cannot rely, as people sometimes suggest, on special constables. They do a fantastic job-I have been out many times with special constables in Chesterfield-but, as the chief constable of Manchester pointed out, they are volunteers. Special constables cannot be ordered to be on duty on a certain day or evening at a certain time. They can be asked or persuaded and both they and their goodwill can be relied on, but they cannot be ordered. We cannot guarantee policing on that basis. They are a fantastic supplement to what the police do and what they provide, but they are no alternative and they are certainly not a free, cheap and easy alternative. We must consider how we will maintain numbers in the future.

One of the alarming factors underneath what looks like a relatively rosy picture is the fact that police numbers in forces around the country have been maintained through the use of dwindling reserves. That has certainly been true in Derbyshire. Derbyshire has features of its own that have been mentioned and to which I shall return, but over the past few years it has considerably run down its reserves in order to maintain and expand police numbers because of the lack of appropriate funding from central Government and because of the threat of council tax capping, which has stopped it using that option to fund police numbers. However, reserves can only be used for so long before they have gone. Quite a number of police forces tell us that they are approaching the point at which they will no longer be able to dip into reserves to plug those manning gaps. Again, we could be approaching the edge of a precipice if special grants disappear and reserves are running out. If we do not have the alternative that the right hon. Member for Harrow, East rightly discussed in considerable detail, and if we maintain the capping regime whereby the Government tell local authorities and, as in this case, police authorities, that they can increase their precept only by a specified amount, or not at all-there are suggestions that council tax might be entirely frozen for a while in the future, which means that there will be cuts-where will the police and local communities turn to? Will police numbers and the services that the police provide simply drop dramatically?

As a few hon. Members have already pointed out, surveys by MORI and other organisations have all come up with the same message-local people would be willing to pay 10 to 30 per cent more on their police precept if they could see a direct link between that money and local policing. A lengthy, in-depth consultation by Derbyshire police authority over two or three years reached a similar conclusion. People do not want that money to go to someone in London who will then hand it back out in grants that may or may not come back to Derbyshire, for example. They want it to go to their police authority to spend on policing the streets in their towns and villages, but the Government say that they will not allow that to happen and they have capped authorities. We heard about capping earlier. In Derbyshire, last year, there was not an outright cap but what happened was effectively the same. The Government said, "We are not going to cap you and make you re-bill, but we will reduce your grant by the amount that you raised by increasing the precept by more than we thought that you should." So, this year that police authority is faced with an effective cap, even though it has been given a different name.

We are told that efficiency savings are the new solution. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative Government used "efficiency savings" as a euphemism for the massive cuts that they imposed in most sectors, including policing and education, in which I worked. We must conclude that this Government's use of the same term will amount to much the same thing. Several points need to be made about that. First, if one says that there are large efficiency savings to be made in the way that our police authorities should be run in the next year or two, it implies that there is a lot of waste-a lot of fat or flab-in the system that could be removed, so that that money could be spent on proper policing. I cannot speak for other police forces, but I know that that is not true of the Derbyshire police, who have had to make as many efficiency savings as possible in the past few years because of Government underfunding. There are few efficiency gains left to be made in that force, so the idea that there is a lot of flab to be cut so that money can be recycled is a dangerous one, especially given that police authorities cumulatively have made £2 billion-worth of efficiency savings in the past 10 years. How much more can they do?

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