Before I start—and I shall not speak for long—it would be negligent of me not to thank the chief constable of Dorset, Debbie Simpson, and our police and crime commissioner, Martyn Underhill, the 1,200 brave officers who serve us and the 1,000-odd staff who support them so admirably across Dorset.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who has been given a difficult pack of cards and is dealing with it as best he can, bearing in mind the state of our economy, which we inherited, and the fact that, to run an effective NHS and police force, we need money. Dorset police has an overall budget requirement of £121.3 million. That sounds like a lot of money, but for a large county such as Dorset it is not. Dorset still receives, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, the second lowest grant per head of population—only Surrey receives less—and that has been the case for some years.
My comments are based on those of the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner, Mr Underhill. All police forces have faced the same cut in police grant for 2017-18, which equates to a cut of 1.4%. That is higher than last year because of top-slicing for national projects such as the police transformation fund and the emergency services network, which the Minister has mentioned. In Dorset, the 1.4% cut in central government grant results in a reduction of just over £800,000. In a letter to the police resources unit, the chief constable and Mr Underhill said that they were
“disappointed in the settlement provided to the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset.”
As the House knows, each police force can raise funds through council tax. The elected police and crime commissioner in each police force area decides the level of police precept levied on residential council tax bills, but it must be limited to 2% or else a referendum will be triggered. After local consultation in Dorset and with a clear majority of nearly 80% to approve an increase, Mr Underhill agreed to increase council tax by 1.98% this year. However, the 1.4% cut in central funding means that the overall funding for Dorset remains static. Every year, the number of people paying council tax in Dorset increases. One might think that that was good news, because it increases the tax base. However, that tax base is the direct result of an increase in the number of properties in the county, which in turn places more pressure on the police service.
It is generally accepted that a new funding formula is needed, and the Minister has kindly said in the House that a new formula is being looked at. The Government, as I understand, want to replace the existing formula with a simplified one, and they are consulting on the arrangements. However, following the discovery of statistical errors in the funding proposals last year, the formula review was re-started. It is not yet finished, and I believe I heard the Minister say that he was not clear—perhaps he can help me when he sums up—about when that will happen. Meanwhile, Dorset still loses £1.9 million via formula damping because the 2009-10 review of the funding formula was never properly implemented.
To balance the books this year, the strategic alliance of Dorset police with Devon and Cornwall police—as the Minister said, the fact that it is looking far and wide to create more efficiencies will be welcomed—will be required to deliver savings of £3.9 million, and £12 million over the next three years. These are considerable sums of money, particularly when Dorset is way ahead of many police forces in cutting back-room staff and making itself more efficient. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is well aware of that point.
The comprehensive spending review in 2010 resulted, as we all know, in savings. They were due to the fact that the country was in a terrible state and there simply was not the money, so cuts had to be made. Thankfully, in November 2015 the new spending review protected police spending, but that was based on the assumption that council tax would rise every year. The actual settlement for 2016 was a cash reduction of 0.6%, and no details were given for future years. Future settlements protect police funding only on the basis that council tax will rise each and every year.
The provisional police settlement is once again only for a single year, unlike in other Departments, which give a four-year preparatory budget outline. That significantly compromises the ability of police forces to plan ahead. As we have heard from the Minister, the police are facing radical reviews and changes, and different crime patterns, particularly in areas such as mine in rural Dorset. We have heard, and I reiterate, that any new formula needs to provide stability, transparency and certainty, and it must recognise the needs of a predominantly rural police force such as the one in Dorset.