11. Debate: The Police Settlement 2024-25

– in the Senedd at 6:46 pm on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:46, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

The next item will be a debate on the police settlement for 2024-25. The Minister for finance to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8482 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, under Section 84H of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, approves the Local Government Finance Report (No. 2) 2024-25 (Final Settlement - Police and Crime Commissioners), which was laid in the Table Office on 31 January 2024.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Rebecca Evans Rebecca Evans Labour 6:46, 20 February 2024

Today I'm presenting to the Senedd for its approval details of the Welsh Government's contribution to the core revenue funding for the four police and crime commissioners in Wales for 2024-25. The core funding for the police in Wales is delivered through a three-way arrangement involving the Home Office, the Welsh Government and council tax. As policing policy and operational matters are non-devolved, the overall funding picture is determined and driven by Home Office decisions.

We have maintained the established approach to setting and distributing the Welsh Government component, based on the principle of ensuring consistency and fairness across England and Wales. As outlined in my announcement on 31 January, the total unhypothecated revenue support for the police service in Wales for 2024-25 stands at £459.8 million. Despite the challenging financial position we face, the Welsh Government's contribution to this amount remains unchanged on last year's £113.5 million and it is this funding that you're being asked to approve today.

As in previous years, the Home Office has overlaid its needs-based formula with a floor mechanism. This means that, for 2024-25, PCCs across England and Wales will all receive an increase in funding of 2.054 per cent when compared with 2023-24, after including the in-year pay uplift for 2023-24 and before an adjustment for special branch funding. The Home Office will provide a top-up grant totalling £67.2 million to ensure that all four Welsh police forces meet the floor level.

The motion for today's debate is to agree the local government finance report for PCCs that has been laid before this Senedd. If approved, it will allow the commissioners to confirm their budgets for the next financial year, and I ask Members to support this motion.

(Translated)

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

Photo of Mark Isherwood Mark Isherwood Conservative 6:48, 20 February 2024

As we've heard, funding for the four Welsh police forces is delivered through a three-way arrangement involving the Home Office, Welsh Government and council tax, with the Home Office operating a needs-based formula with a floor mechanism to distribute funding across Welsh and English police forces and with the Welsh Government component based on consistency across England and Wales.

For 2024-25, the total core support for police forces in Wales will be £459.8 million. The Welsh Government's contribution to the settlement for Wales is £113.47 million, the same amount given in the 2023-24 settlement. Police forces across England and Wales will receive a funding boost of up to £287 million next year from the UK Government. The rise will take the funding total for policing in England and Wales up to £17.2 billion, and means that police and crime commissioners across the 43 police forces in England and Wales will receive an increase of up to £523 million from Government grants and precept income. Council tax police precept will rise by 4.69 per cent in north Wales, 6.2 per cent in Dyfed-Powys, 6.7 per cent in Gwent and by 8.69 per cent in south Wales.

On a related matter, the Wales Police Schools Programme, SchoolBeat.Cymru, is a collaboration of Welsh Government and Dyfed-Powys, Gwent, North Wales and South Wales Police, which creates the role of school police officers, a dedicated point of contact for every school in Wales. It delivers a nationally reviewed, bilingual curriculum of teacher-developed lessons for ages five to 16. They engage with all schools, including mainstream education, independent schools in Wales, schools supporting additional learning needs and alternative provision, including pupil referral units and education other than at school, as an agreed policy of the four police forces of Wales for responding to reports of incidents in schools and supporting and advising schools in a safeguarding capacity—basically, early intervention and prevention. However, it was confirmed to me, initially in written questions, that the Welsh Government will be withdrawing its match funding for the Wales police schools programme, which includes SchoolBeat, thereby removing a key early intervention and prevention programme and thereby stoking up costs for statutory services, including those the Welsh Government is responsible for. This is therefore another short-sighted decision by the Welsh Government, cutting a programme that is designed to prevent rather than cure, saving the public purse further down the line.

In March last year, the UK Government fulfilled its manifesto pledge and recruited 20,951 officers from funding for the police uplift programme, including 1,005 new police officers across Wales, ranging from 141 in Powys to 206 in both north Wales and Gwent and 452 in south Wales. Welsh Conservative policy also remains to increase funding for police community support officers each year.

The latest figures from the crime survey for England and Wales for the year ending June 2023 showed that total crime decreased by 10 per cent, mainly caused by decreases in fraud and criminal damage offences. This follows a long-term downward trend and recent falls since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, with total crime 18 per cent lower than the year ending March 2020. And as I learned when I visited the North West Regional Organised Crime Unit, an estimated 95 per cent or more of crime in north Wales operates on a cross-border, east-west basis and almost none on an all-Wales basis.

However, the Welsh Government is yet to explain why the Thomas commission report only makes one reference to cross-border criminality, despite the evidence presented to them. Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales has a heavily populated cross-border area, with almost half the population in Wales living within 25 miles of England, and 90 per cent within 50 miles.

Given these operational and population realities, the Welsh Government must explain why it is devoting so much time and resource to devolution of policing to Wales when it is cutting key budgets elsewhere, especially when both the UK Conservative Government and the most senior Welsh Labour MP in Westminster, shadow Welsh Secretary Jo Stevens, have rejected fresh calls for the Welsh Government to be given control of policing and adult criminal justice. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 6:53, 20 February 2024

The police settlement for 2024-25 lays bare the extent to which 14 years of Tory-driven austerity has compromised the safety of our communities. Due to the severity of cuts imposed on police forces during the Cameron administration, it is only now that we're seeing a recovery in police numbers in Wales to roughly the same level as they were in 2010. And at a time when the spending power of the public finances is in such a ruinous state, the total uplift of less than £10 million for the Wales police grant in the next financial year, which represents a mere 2 per cent increase compared to last year, means that difficult spending decisions lie ahead for all four of our police forces.

For example, the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales has estimated that the force's budget has been eroded by £651 million in real terms over the last 12 years. Meanwhile, Dyfed-Powys and North Wales are having to contemplate savings of around £6 million and £7.5 million respectively over the next five years.

The detrimental impact of austerity is not just observable in financial figures alone. A recent Police Federation of England and Wales survey revealed that 97 per cent of responders said that their treatment by the Government, especially on funding, harmed their morale, but perhaps we shouldn't—

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

I've got a lot to get through, sorry, Mark.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the Tory party, which has developed a persistent habit in recent years of breaking the rules, doesn't seem to see the value of investing in law and order. The consequence of this consistent underinvestment from Westminster is that council tax appears to have to foot an increasingly larger share of the costs. The police precept for each Welsh police force will increase during the next financial year by almost 9 per cent in the case of south Wales, which means that the precept now accounts for 47 per cent of the budget, compared to 34 per cent a decade ago. So, when the Conservative Members here complain about the hikes to council tax, they would do well to channel that anger towards their UK Government colleagues and call on them to properly fund Wales's police forces. 

The Welsh Government also bears responsibility in this area. While the hand they've been dealt by the UK Government is unquestionably a poor one, it's nevertheless the case that the decision to cut £7.5 million from the police community support officer budget and freeze the planned recruitment programme will further stretch the resources of police forces. And I'd be grateful if the Minister could explain how the Government has been engaging with the respective police forces on the implications of the draft budget spending plans.

Finally, from a broader perspective, the challenging position in which our police forces find themselves is a reflection of how badly Wales is let down by a lack of devolved powers over policing, in stark contrast to the other devolved nations. In financial terms, this is highlighted by the false economy of spend-to-save models in a non-devolved context, which means that, despite the fact that around a third of total spending on justice in Wales comes from devolved or local government sources, any resultant savings derived from Welsh policy initiatives aren't returned to the Welsh Treasury. As was recommended by the Silk commission almost a decade ago, the case for rectifying this constitutional anomaly is compelling and long overdue, and yet it continues to fall on deaf ears amongst the UK Labour leadership, in yet another example of inherent unresponsiveness to the needs of Wales. I would therefore call on Labour Members to ask the shadow Secretary of State for Wales this simple question: why do you believe that the failing status quo is the best it gets for the Welsh people? Diolch.

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 6:57, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

Although this settlement does provide a general increase in funding, this isn't allocated on the basis of the individual needs of the forces. And, as Peredur Owen Griffiths said, it comes following a number of cuts over a period of a decade. In addition to the cuts to police funding, the police have also had to cope with trying to fill the large gap that's been left in our communities because of austerity policies.

According to South Wales Police, they receive a call every 13 minutes for an incident related to mental health. Of those incidents, only 4 per cent of the calls need the exercise of police powers—96 per cent of the calls, one every 13 minutes, relate to mental health issues. In addition, each and every one of us will have heard of police cars being used as ambulances to take people to hospitals, and also examples of people with severe mental health problems being held in police cells. 

Photo of Rhys ab Owen Rhys ab Owen Plaid Cymru 6:58, 20 February 2024

According to the Home Office, to ensure an average increase in cash for police services of 6 per cent, all the police and crime commissioners in England and Wales will need to increase their precepts by at least £13—[Inaudible.]—figure. In north Wales, the precept is increasing by £16; in Dyfed-Powys, £19; in Gwent, £25; and in south Wales by an eye-watering £28—a £28 increase to council taxes to the people of south Wales. It's unfair that, due to lack of proper funding by the Westminster Government, local residents, who have already paid for policing in their taxes, are being asked to yet again bear the brunt, especially during a cost-of-living crisis. 

It also creates a strange postcode lottery, where the tax in Loughor will increase by almost double what it does across the estuary in Llanelli. While the current calculations take account of a few socioeconomic factors, the main detriment is population size. Why, then, are we using predictions—not data, predictions, not data—from 2013, to decide funding outcomes in 2024? This has been highlighted and criticised by the police federation for years, but it's still being used by the Welsh Government. If we are serious about the devolution of policing, we need to show greater care to the need of policing here in Wales.

As Peredur said, 93 per cent of Welsh police officers said that they don't feel respected by the Welsh Government. When you consider the number of cuts over the years to educational, community-orientated and preventative measures dealt with by the police, and the added complexity created by the jagged edge, it's easy to understand why they feel this way.

Vitally, this settlement fails to provide a forward-looking vision for policing in Wales. Instead of committing to a stable and sustainable funding scheme, we see Welsh Ministers relying on annual settlements that provide no indication of future trajectory. This is crucial if we are serious about further devolution. I hope, with a change of Government this year in Westminster, that the Welsh Government and the Home Office will work together to provide additional support for the future funding of devolved policing, an indication of a pathway to devolved policing and a plan to devolve funding formulas to allow Welsh Government to produce a fairer funding system that works for all across Wales. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 7:01, 20 February 2024

One of the things that hit the headlines last week was around the SchoolBeat.Cymru project or initiative, and obviously it's been of huge concern, both to the police, police and crime commissioners and schools, but also people within the community I represent, that this is coming to an end. Obviously, the police have decided to fund it for the rest of the academic year, but it was disappointing to find out that there'd been no consultation, no conversation around the end to this programme. In terms of its impact, I think all those testimonies speak for themselves. It was very powerful to read on the news, but also in the e-mails I've received from teachers, stating about the impact that they can see from that investment of having the police being able to engage, and also how that actually tackles issues before they escalate and avoids people then having to go down that youth justice route that we don't want to have to engage in.

There are so many different issues that are covered in those lessons, from substance abuse, safeguarding, behaviours, but also anti-racism; so many issues that they are able to proactively engage with and in that kind of environment that is safe and welcoming. So, I would ask the Welsh Government what considerations have been given, following those criticisms of and concerns about that cut to that specific funding stream, to ensure that that work does not disintegrate with the loss of that funding. Because prevention, in the long term, will save in terms of public funding, so I would very much want to know will those conversations now take place, if they didn't happen before that decision was taken, and how we can ensure that those programmes can continue in schools.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 7:03, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to reply to the debate. Rebecca Evans.

Photo of Rebecca Evans Rebecca Evans Labour

Thank you. I'll just begin, really, by recognising the benefits to police and crime commissioners of indicative funding for future years. However, this isn't always feasible and it's not helpful, I know, for commissioners in respect of medium-term financial planning, but as the funding arrangements do cover England and Wales, it's not possible for the Welsh Government to publish information without details on Home Office funding.

Just to reference briefly the review of the funding formula, which is currently in progress, UK Government Ministers have confirmed their intention to complete this work before the next general election. The Home Office does recognise that the current police funding formula is out of date and no longer accurately reflects demand on policing, and the UK Government is committed to introducing a new formula that, it says, will fairly and transparently distribute core funding to the 43 police forces in England and Wales.

So, a technical phase of the review is currently under way and that will deliver proposals for new funding arrangements. A senior sector group and technical reference group have been convened with representation from the policing sector and relevant experts to lead on development of a new formula. The Home Office will continue to work closely with the sector throughout the review, and any proposals will be subject to a full public consultation before being implemented, and obviously we would want our Welsh Government officials to continue to stay close to that work and continue to receive those updates on it.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Rebecca Evans Rebecca Evans Labour 7:05, 20 February 2024

I, of course, understand the concerns that have been raised about the Wales police schools programme. That wasn't an easy decision by any means, but I think that it's just a really good example—another good example this afternoon—of the tough choices that we've had to make in terms of our budget for next year. In prioritising the NHS and local government, it has meant changing our approach to some programmes across Government, and in that context we did have to make that difficult decision to withdraw funding for the Wales police schools programme at the end of this financial year.

It is worth recognising that the landscape around well-being for learners on a range of important issues has changed significantly since that programme was introduced. Many areas are now subject matter that would normally be considered in the health and well-being area of learning, and all of those were traditionally covered by the WPSP. But Welsh Government officials will be working with a range of internal and external stakeholders to examine what existing or alternative provision and resources are available to ensure that children are given relevant information to allow them to make informed decisions and to keep them safe. But just to emphasise again that that wasn't a decision that was taken lightly, and certainly not one that we would have wanted to take had our financial situation been different.

And then, just briefly, to reflect on police community support officers, we're still providing over £15 million of funding for PCSOs, despite this area being reserved to the UK Government. This money is provided over and above the funding that police forces will receive from the UK Government. It provides additional investment in Welsh communities that isn't available to forces in England. And also, the Welsh Government's funding for transport PCSOs from the climate change portfolio is unaffected, and I'm pleased that we are able to continue funding in this important area. We provide £0.5 million in funding every year for transport PCSOs, and this funding also supports a police sergeant and part funding of one police inspector.

Although, talking about priorities again, we have made the decision to prioritise spending on community safety in the areas that are devolved to the Welsh Government. That includes maintaining or increasing our spending in areas such as the Wales Hate Support Centre, violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan', the women's justice blueprint, and the community cohesion programme. The full extent of this investment is set out in our draft budget.

Just to say 'thank you' to my colleague the Minister for Social Justice, who has the day-to-day relationships with our police colleagues, and I know that those relationships are very, very constructive indeed.

And then just to finally recognise the difficult backdrop against which decision will be taken in respect of the setting of the precept. Unlike in England, we have retained the freedom for Welsh PCCs to make their own decisions about council tax increases. Setting the precept is a key part of the PCCs' role, and it demonstrates their accountability to the local electorate. All our PCCs have been consulting with their communities on the level of local funding for 2024-25, and I know that they'll be keenly aware of the cost-of-living pressures that many households continue to face, and I do expect PCCs to act in a reasonable manner by consulting local residents and the constituent councils, and having sensible budget plans and medium-term financial plans in place, and also reflecting on previous council tax decisions in their areas too.

So, just finally, Llywydd, to conclude by recognising the important work that the police do for our communities right across Wales. They're an absolutely key part of an integrated public service, working with health boards, local councils, and other partners as part of our joined-up approach to community safety here in Wales.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 7:09, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections and we will therefore defer voting until voting time.

(Translated)

Voting deferred until voting time.