Police Grant Report

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 3:38 pm on 3rd February 2010.

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Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon 3:38 pm, 3rd February 2010

Indeed, and that is much the same as the Prime Minister. I do not know what other Members think, but I find it hard to understand how people in the public sector doing lesser jobs than the Prime Minister can justify salaries of that magnitude. When the Prime Minister goes to bed at night he is concerned about Northern Ireland, the situation in the middle east, Afghanistan and all the pressures that he is under. It is not quite the same to grapple with crime on Union street in Plymouth, serious and important though that is. I am not saying that the chief constable's salary is too much, but I wonder whether many people in my constituency are aware of how much he earns. Perhaps they will be from tomorrow onwards.

There are five police officers in Devon and Cornwall who earn more than £100,000. I did not know that until last night, and I do not think many of my constituents do. In the great wider debate about public sector salaries at senior level, it is important that our constituents have the information on which to make their judgment. I certainly agree with those who say that no one in the public sector should earn more than the Prime Minister in the years ahead.

Devon and Cornwall police authority spends £500,000 a year on press and publicity. Maybe that is money well spent, and perhaps it is a reflection of the world in which we live, but it is still an awful lot of money. It could pay for five senior police officers, I suppose.

The main thrust of my argument-the Minister has heard it before, and I have bored the Home Affairs Committee with it quite a lot in recent weeks and months-is that we can do an awful lot more to ensure that there is co-operation between police forces, up to and including voluntary mergers. When that was being discussed five or six years ago by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Clarke, whose views we now agree with daily-he has some great insights into the workings of this Government-I completely opposed the suggestion that Devon and Cornwall police should merge with other authorities. However, as I have said in the Home Affairs Committee and to wider audiences, I was completely wrong on that. The Government were wrong to force such mergers from a top-down position, and we have probably arrived at a much more balanced situation today. Police forces up and down the country are being encouraged-and they are doing so voluntarily-to look at the savings that can be made by co-operating or merging with their next-door police force.

As part of the Committee's studies, we interviewed the very impressive Chief Constable Parker of Bedfordshire police. Answering a question from me about the possibility of her force merging with the Hertfordshire police force, she gave me this information:

"Since 2006 the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire and myself have been working with our authorities on a collaboration programme. We have collaborated to the extent that we have joint units of more than 500 police officers and staff and that has saved us £2.2 million year-on-year. Our estimates-in fact they are more than estimates because we have worked very hard on the business case-are-first of all, the bad news-that it will cost us £20 million to make the merger happen, but within three years we would be gaining savings of £14.6 million per annum."

My maths is not particularly strong, unlike yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, with your first-class degree in the subject, but £14 million savings for £20 million is a pretty good start-it is for only three years.

Chief Constable Parker went on to say:

"To put that against the picture that we were working on in terms of budget gap, we estimate-this is an estimate obviously-that by 2013-14 combined forces would have a budget gap of over £23 million."

Whoever wins the next election, that is the sort of challenge that police forces are going to be looking at-that was from the horse's mouth, the chief constable of Bedfordshire. One way we can fill that gap is to encourage police forces to consider voluntary merger.

What kind of savings could be made and on what functions? If Devon and Cornwall police merged with Dorset police, the new force would need only one chief constable-thereby saving a very significant salary-fewer senior officers and only one headquarters. I imagine that one force could get away with far fewer accountants in the police authority and, presumably, one force would need the same number of press and marketing people as two-they would just need to cover a slightly wider territory. Money would be saved on back-office costs, administration, and human resources and personnel. Such savings could add up to many millions of pounds. The Devon and Somerset fire services recently merged. There were quite a few wobbles and concerns about that to begin with, but things settled down extremely well, and it has been able to save significant sums in back-office functions. Police forces could do the same.

One may ask, "What about accountability?" but I would answer, clearly and boldly, that Devon and Cornwall police authority has no real accountability to the people of Devon and Cornwall. I must confess-this is shocking admission-that I did not know the name of the chair of Devon and Cornwall police authority until I looked it up this morning on the internet. The chair recently changed, so that was not completely hopeless on my part, but I did not know the name and I am supposed to be an informed elected representative of that area. If I asked my constituents how many of them could name the chair of the Devon and Cornwall police authority, I suspect the answer would be three or four. That is the reality: there is no connection between the authority and the people of Devon and Cornwall.

Accountability and connectivity happens at base command unit level. We have a tremendous relationship with the commander of the Plymouth BCU-local Members of Parliament and councillors have regular meetings with him and he is a very impressive officer-and a tremendous relationship at ward level, with inspectors, sergeants and constables on the beat. That is how most communities relate to their police. They relate to their beat constable, and they might go to meetings to which an inspector or sergeant might go. The relationship is not with the police authority or with the headquarters at Middlemoor in Exeter; it is much closer. Therefore, adding Dorset to Devon and Cornwall police, or even going a step further to incorporate Avon and Somerset within the same police area, would not diminish accountability on the ground, because accountability happens in a very different way. It is wrong, of course, to do things just for financial reasons, but I see little or no downside to a bottom-up rationalisation of police forces-not top-down pressure from the Government in which they would define the values of mergers-that could save millions of pounds. Such a rationalisation would help whoever wins the next election to bridge the gap and keep police officers on the front line. I encourage chief constables to speed up discussions with neighbouring authorities and consider voluntary mergers.

My experience in 17 years as a Member of Parliament has been that uniformed services-be they the armed forces, the ambulance service, the fire service or the police force-are slow to change and can be poor at embracing technology. It is not good enough to leave things to them. A little pressure from the Home Office is necessary to encourage police forces to seek the most efficient way to deliver their services.

The police force in Devon and Cornwall spends an awful lot of money every year on policing Travellers. We have an increasing number of intrusions into my constituency, and one reason why they are so expensive to police is the system for dealing with them. In almost every case, the local authority must serve a notice, which means consulting lawyers and putting legal papers in order, and that is expensive. Then the authority must wait for the notice to expire, during which time the police are in attendance in most cases-costing money-but they are not free to act. The legislation needs to be looked at again-

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