Police Funding (London)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:21 pm on 16th December 2003.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:21 pm, 16th December 2003

There has been an enormous improvement in the management of the Metropolitan police in the last few years. I will shortly give a few indicators that show that. I certainly accept that the Metropolitan police were notorious for the inefficiency of some of their operations a few years ago. That has greatly changed. The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to terrorism. There is a query about how the Government will approach that. That is not a criticism. As I understand it, some 257 new security posts were to be created in London specifically to deal with the problem. The Metropolitan Police Authority and the police have no indication of how they are to be funded. The impression they have gained is that there is to be no additional funding for that purpose.

In addition to the difficulties of the basic national formula and the national duties allocation, there is a set of queries relating to the special grants. It would be better—I know that the Government are moving in this direction—if some of those special grants were simplified and consolidated. What seems to be happening is that existing special grants are being increased far less substantially than the London police have been led to expect. This is a further source of concern.

The community support officers are a welcome addition and have made a major difference to policing in the capital. Some 40 per cent. of them are women or from the ethnic minorities. They are making a big change to the face of London police. However, the funding that has been made available for them for next year is substantially less than London was led to expect. The Airwave project is key to efficiency and better communication. Again, there is a big drop in funding that will be made available for it. The crime-fighting fund, which is key to recruitment, is not being extended next year. The funding of existing officers is being reduced. The funding being made available for a whole set of specific grants is less then London was led to expect. That is on top of the losses from the overall funding allocation.

What are the potential consequences? As I understand it, there is a consultation process in which the Minister will be involved. It may produce a different outcome from the one that I am trailing here. There is a set of decisions to be made by London's elected members. It is not for the Government or me. That is right. They have to decide their own priorities. But it is clear on the basis of the provisional numbers that some painful decisions will have to be made. It is quite possible that the London authorities will steam ahead with their plans for expanding the number of police officers on the ground. If they do that they will have to increase substantially the council tax precept. A figure of 20 per cent. growth has been quoted but given the overall inequity and unpopularity of the council tax system, I suspect that that would not be acceptable to many boroughs.

The alternative is for the police in London to trim back some of their plans. In particular, I am worried that the Metropolitan police may be forced to abandon or seriously postpone their step change initiative, which was to give a new dimension to policing in London by introducing ward-based beat policing across the capital. The first stage was to involve three wards per borough, including mine. My understanding is that the funding is precarious and depends on an optimistic outcome to the negotiations with the Government.

Of course, the Government could say that the Metropolitan police could become more efficient. That point was made in an intervention. They could ask why the Metropolitan police do not save money. I remember being part of a delegation that went to see the Home Secretary—now the Foreign Secretary—about four or five years ago. He produced all kind of indicators of inefficiency in the Metropolitan police to explain why he was not being more generous to them, but since then there has been a big change. The Metropolitan Police Authority has been able to demonstrate that, over the past three years, it has made, I think, effective cuts of £100 million in expenditure, through improved productivity. According to most indicators of performance, when the Metropolitan police are compared with West Midlands or Greater Manchester police, which are comparable forces, they come out relatively well on things such as days lost and crime reduction. I am talking about burglary, car theft and many other key crimes. Public perception of and trust in the Metropolitan police ranks higher than for comparable metropolitan forces. There has been a big turnaround in the Metropolitan police, and the old argument about not trusting them with more money because they will not use it properly is becoming rather invalid.

To draw my thoughts to a close, I have two specific points. First, how it is possible to get a simple and more transparent system of Government funding for the Metropolitan and other police services? One of the points that people in the police service make is that they currently negotiate with six or seven Departments, and the European Commission. They deal with the Treasury, the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Transport—for the British Transport police—the Department of Trade and Industry and others. Can those different negotiations and streams of funding not be consolidated in a much simpler way? That ties in with the broader argument about the need for targeting to be reduced because it merely adds to the complexity and rigidity of funding. I know that the Government are moving in that direction this year, but targeting remains a major problem.

My other point is about the funding of major events. It is estimated that the Metropolitan police spent £4.2 million on the Bush state visit. Much of that was opportunity costs—police who could have been employed doing other things—but the sum is substantial. It is assumed that that will all be covered with the national and capital city funding formula, but there is an argument for treating big events separately. I suggest that that particular event could, and perhaps sensibly should, be covered separately by the Government. It was an entirely national activity and a one-off event, and should be separately funded rather than assimilated into the costs of the Metropolitan police. London has already paid for the visit in other ways because robbery rose 20 per cent. on the day in question. Many areas, such as mine, were denuded of their police officers. Londoners have already been asked to pay once, and they are being asked to pay twice.

On major events, I have another suggestion. I understand that the argument is not simply about asking taxpayers to pay more for policing. There is an argument, in some cases, for getting commercial operators to pay more. My constituency is host to the Rugby Football Union, as we are all aware, and I am proud of that, but I often question why the Metropolitan police should be expected to provide police officers outside the ground, at overtime rates, when there are major events. I did some costings about a year or so ago, and the cost is about £35,000 or £40,000 a time. Taking into account the major events over a year, the cost is probably £500,000. If the cost of events at Stamford Bridge and Highbury is added to that, we are talking about quite a large sum of money, and that is just for sporting events, not other events. There is an argument for asking the organisers, most of whom are now highly profitable owing to television revenues, to make a contribution to that. It should not just be down to the taxpayer.

The major question is why London, despite its exceptional needs and costs relative to other parts of the UK, appears to have suffered disproportionately in the allocations for the coming financial year and seems to have lost a lot of money for reasons that are not clear.