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Lancashire has been one of the top-performing police forces in the country for many years, and in some ways it has been a victim of its own success. Despite the improvements in its performance and efficiency, it has been on the receiving end of this Government’s cuts for a number of years. Given that success, however, I pay tribute to County Councillor Clive Grunshaw, our police and crime commissioner, and especially to Chief Constable Steve Finnigan, who is retiring this year after giving many years’ service to the people of Lancashire.
The police face financial and demand pressures as partner services are cut, and they also face the challenges posed by uncertainty about the future. The financial uncertainty caused by the return of the police funding formula review particularly affects forces such as Lancashire’s. Last time, mistakes were made in the process which suggested that Lancashire would lose about £25 million a year, on top of the £76 million-worth of savings that have been made since 2010. Even when the figures were revised, it was clear that more than £8 million a year would be taken out of its annual policing budget. That meant that it faced savings of more than £100 million a year by 2020, in comparison with 2010, which is the equivalent of more than a third of its budget.
Reform of the police funding formula is overdue, as has been pointed out by the Home Affairs Committee and by Members here today. It is vital for the new formula to represent accurately the demands on police forces. All forces need to be adequately resourced, but that must be done without disadvantaging other areas where tough choices are already being made so that necessary savings can be delivered. My constituents tell me repeatedly that they do not want resources to be taken out of policing, and have therefore supported increases in the policing precept. Further cuts will have an impact on officer numbers, as about 80% of the constabulary’s total budget consists of staffing and officer costs.
When the Chancellor announced in 2016 that police budgets would continue to be protected in cash terms, assuming that council tax was maximised, I, along with many others, welcomed that news. Last year’s cuts in grant funding were a uniform 0.6%, and this year’s provisional settlement outlined a further 1.3% cut in direct resource funding. While those cuts are considerably better than was originally expected in 2015, they still mean that Lancashire must absorb normal inflation and other Government-imposed cost pressures, such as the national insurance changes, the national living wage, and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. As a result, it must still deliver £4 million of savings in 2017-18, with a further £14 million to be found by 2019-20.
I am also disappointed that there is to be a further reduction in police capital grant in 2017-18. Regular IT replacement cycles impose a significant cost on the force, but that investment is vital to ensure improved productivity and efficiency in future years. The reduction in grant means that the burden on scarce revenue resources is increased, as borrowing to meet those costs is an unattractive option in view of the relatively short life cycles of IT assets.
The Minister did not mention top-slicing in his opening speech. The value of top-slices will have increased significantly in 2017-18, by over £100 million. That increase is more than the assumed year-on-year increase in precept income from the 2016-17 level nationally. It could be argued that local taxpayers are, in effect, funding the growth in national programmes.
There is no information about the detailed plans for the £175 million transformation fund for 2017-18. Until that information is provided, the treasurer of my council will be unable to gauge how much of the funding might be returned to the service. In recent years, the Government have shifted towards creating funding pots for the police service to bid for, and that bidding process can be laborious and possibly fruitless at a time when resources are thinly stretched. We would also like an assurance that the proposed £525 million increase in the transformation fund in 2018-19—to provide a total fund of £700 million—will not be met by further top-slices in the grant that is distributed to police and crime commissioners. A further reduction of that magnitude in direct funding for policing would have a very detrimental effect on the ability of forces to deliver their services to the public.
The top-slice taken to fund the emergency services network programme has increased significantly, at a time when the implementation of the network is consistently being pushed further and further back. It concerns me that, according to the Public Accounts Committee’s report on the new programme, the December 2019 cut-off point may not be met. That may mean that the existing Airwave contract will be extended, at a potential cost of nearly £500 million. At a time when resources for policing are stretched to an unprecedented level, it does not seem prudent to remove funding from forces to pay for a programme that is not making progress. I would be grateful for any information or reassurances that the Minister and the Department can provide about the ability to meet the timescales in question, or about the protection of individual forces’ budgets from any overrun costs arising from the ESN or the extension of Airwave contracts.
I would also appreciate more certainty in general about the future level of top-slicing. It has increased each year, but at inconsistent levels, which makes the forecasting of future levels of resources and their allocation extremely difficult. The Government are making financial planning and the prudent management of public funding considerably more difficult than they need to be.
Mental health services have received a great deal of media attention recently. It is widely understood in the sector that mental health is a key driver of demand for policing. When I met my local chief constable a couple of weeks ago, I was told that 80% of incoming calls to the police were not even crime-related, and many involved mental health problems. While the police have received relative protection from this round of Government austerity, the same cannot be said of many of our blue light partners. Local government has been severely affected and, despite additional resources, the pressures on health are well documented and have been made clear by other Members. As a result, the service is facing increased pressure from cuts to other sectors’ funding. I therefore ask Ministers present today, the Home Office and other Departments to ensure that investment in other relevant sectors, such as the health service, the courts and the prisons, is maintained in order to generate benefits for the police service. Cutting these other services is having an indirect effect on the operation of the police service.
I ask the Minister to speak to the Chancellor and make representations on this year’s Budget. I hope that the Government, and the Chancellor in particular, will take account of the issues I have raised, in order to improve the police service to the people of Lancashire and elsewhere throughout the country.