West Mercia Police (Funding)

– in Westminster Hall at 2:00 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Team PPS), Department for Education and Skills 2:00 pm, 12th October 2004

I welcome the opportunity to raise this important matter in this Chamber. I am pleased that so many of my colleagues have turned up today to make their concerns known as well. I wish to put on the record my support and appreciation of the work undertaken by the local police. Forgive me for being parochial for just a moment or two, but the leadership of Chief Superintendent Simon Adams, who is the divisional commander of South Worcestershire, the work tackling antisocial behaviour in Warndon villages of Sergeant Chris Allen, the community engagement in St. Johns of Police Constable Tina Dodd, and the local knowledge that community support officer Lee Russell has gained just by walking his beat, and that he uses to cut crime in Warndon, are just a few examples of the really good work that our local police force does in a difficult and challenging job.

However, this debate centres on finance, to which I now turn. The nomination process for the financial year 2004–05 has left a challenge that must be met by West Mercia in its budget setting for 2005–06: a notional reduction of £517,000. That point was clearly made to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and the Regions and me at a meeting with the local police authority. Unfortunately, she cannot be here at this moment. If hon. Members look at the Annunciator, they will see exactly why.

The Association of Police Authorities has recently highlighted the fact that police authorities will need a 5.5 per cent. increase in their budgets next year just to maintain current levels of service. That is largely due to the cost of salaries and the commitments arising from the unfunded police pension scheme, about which I shall say more later. I understand that the rate of so-called police inflation is increasingly recognised, and I would welcome any observations that the Minister has on the matter that may help West Mercia and other police authorities in their financial planning.

West Mercia shares the position of other police authorities. The 2004–05 budget requirement of £165.8 million will need to increase by £8.9 million, or 5.4 per cent, to maintain current policies. Broadly speaking, £5.3 million is due to increased pay and other inflation, £1.2 million is for police pension commitments and £1.9 million is for unavoidable commitments, such as salary increments following the increase in the number of police officers and the local government pension contributions for the civilian staff. An increase of only 3 per cent. in police grant—£3.2 million—would leave a shortfall of £5.7 million to be found from the council tax, which would have to increase by 9.8 per cent., raising the band D rate to £151.14. I repeat that those figures are for maintaining the status quo. They make no provision for matters pressing on West Mercia such as improved custody facilities, improvements to call handling and increased calls to tackle antisocial behaviour.

Before I press the Minister on areas where I hope that she can use her influence to help West Mercia, I would like to spend some time exploring the background to the funding problems and try to shed some light on them. It has been said in some Government quarters that West Mercia is a high-spending police authority. Let me put the record straight. The average spend per head of population for 2004–05 for all police authorities is £182.82. West Mercia is the fourth lowest at £141.97. Even taking just the shire forces, the average spend per head is £151, and West Mercia is well below that. Narrowing the field even more to include just the most similar forces as our comparator, the average is £143.07—still higher than West Mercia. There is no way that one could describe West Mercia as a high-spending, profligate authority.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He is absolutely right to compare West Mercia with other rural forces and not with urban forces. Will he deal with the issue of sparsity in his speech? Although it may not be a factor in Worcester, it certainly is in Herefordshire, parts of Shropshire and parts of Worcestershire. In reality, the £2.3 million that the constabulary receives from the Government to account for the sparsity factor has not increased in line with inflation in recent years. Does he hope that it will in future, and does he agree that the money should be ring-fenced to deal with the real issues of policing in rural areas?

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Team PPS), Department for Education and Skills

I shall obviously have to call immediately for a leak inquiry. Information must have gone from my office to that of the hon. Gentleman because he makes the exact point that I want to make later in my contribution.

The council tax band D levels show that West Mercia portrays itself in an unfavourable light. The 2004–05 precept is £137.69, which is higher than the national average of £126.33, higher than the shire force average of £121.12 and higher than the most similar force average of £123.06. We must accept that council tax is higher for West Mercia. Having established that it is not a high-spending police authority, why is it necessary for it to be a relatively high precept-levying authority? The answer lies in the third part of the funding triangle—Government grant per head of population. In West Mercia's case, I would call it the Bermuda triangle, because things seem to go missing in it.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford

Does my hon. Friend agree that West Mercia finds itself in its current position partly because of the brave decision that the police authority took about two years ago to recruit hundreds of new police officers? I understand that the current force strength stands at about 2,400 officers. That was a brave decision, and I hope that the Government and the Minister will respond by ensuring that the authority, having taken that decision, is provided with a good platform of grant in future.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Team PPS), Department for Education and Skills

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, I think that those police officer numbers are at the highest level since the constabulary was formed in 1967, which is testimony to what my hon. Friend describes as a brave local decision.

The average Government grant for all police forces is £138.11 per head, while West Mercia's is £92.24. Shire forces average £107.16 per head, and most similar forces average £99.07 per head. This is the core of the problem. If West Mercia received the all-force average Government grant per head of population, it would receive an additional £53.6 million to spend. If it received the shire force average, it would have £17.4 million more to spend, and if it received the most similar force average Government grant per head it would get £7.9 million more to spend each and every year.

We must view that information in the context of what I have already explained is a requirement to spend an extra £8.9 million next year just to stand still. Raising £1 million from council tax only would limit the increase to £2.38, or 1.7 per cent. All the police forces in England and Wales that surround West Mercia receive a higher Government grant per head than West Mercia. I believe that the Minister will agree that crime does not respect local administrative boundaries, even though funding seems to. In the small island state that we live in, people do not understand why postcode lotteries still exist.

As a resident and council tax payer in West Mercia, I accept—as my hon. Friend David Wright has mentioned—that local decisions have also been made to increase council tax to pay for additional police services. For example, the 2002–03 budget proposed to recruit an additional 300 police officers, all funded locally. Indeed, that contributed to the council tax increase of 33.1 per cent. experienced that year but—significantly, because of the manner in which council tax capping has been used this year—the decision also has annual council tax consequences.

Using figures supplied by the police authority, I estimate the additional marginal cost of activity associated with employing those 300 officers to be £4.28 on council tax. That is in addition to the direct employment costs identified back in 2002–03. Deducting the whole cost of employing those 300 officers from the police budget would see the band D precept reduce to £119.10, saving some £18.59 over the year. That brings the council tax below the national force average, the shire force average and the most similar force average.

However, at a philosophical level, should that decision be held against West Mercia in council tax capping decisions? I have a real problem with arguing that it should. Delegating to local people powers to improve their local police force is a way of empowering them to respond to local need and it provides a mechanism to give greater democratic accountability to the police force. I find it difficult to argue the case that local people should be penalised for actively seeking a local solution to what they consider to be local problems.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I want to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend David Wright. According to the figures that I have seen, there has been an increase of something like 30 per cent. in staff numbers at West Mercia over the past seven years. We now have 4,000 police officers and support staff, whereas before we had 3,100. The benefits are obvious for all to see. There are 40 additional police officers patrolling the streets of my constituency. There are 21 community support officers in Telford and Wrekin and I have just written a letter to the Minister encouraging her to fund more. How many letters has my hon. Friend Mr. Foster had from constituents complaining about the increase in the precept of West Mercia police? Perhaps he will also tell us how many letters he has received from ordinary local council tax payers objecting to the increase in the council tax levied by his council.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Team PPS), Department for Education and Skills

I confess that I have indeed received one letter complaining about the 2002–03 police precept increase. It was a case that I know that the police authority is well aware of and it has involved a prolonged exchange of correspondence. However, I have received numerous letters from my constituents applauding the work that the police are doing in cutting antisocial behaviour and crime generally. They far outweigh the single letter that I received in 2002–03.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about staff numbers increasing, because it is not just the increase in police officer numbers that is relevant; the civilianisation of the police force, which means that more operational officers can go on the beat, is also an important way in which we can manage the resources that we have.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Just for the record, I have had a lot of letters complaining about the increase in precept.

Photo of Michael Foster Michael Foster PPS (Team PPS), Department for Education and Skills

I take that point on board. I am not in a position to dispute it one way or the other. Of course, it matters that the police authority undertook proper consultation. Community policing boards agreed to the precept increase and that was supported by an opinion poll survey conducted in January 2002 among 500 residents of West Mercia, which found that 71 per cent. of people supported adding 50p a week to their council tax specifically to pay for 300 extra officers. That figure rose to 81 per cent. when people were asked about adding 30p to recruit 100 extra officers. Only 19 per cent. were not in favour of any increase at all.

Having established, I hope, that West Mercia is a low-spending force, albeit with a relatively high council tax precept as a result of the low level of Government grant, it is worth looking at whether West Mercia uses those resources efficiently. The most recent baseline report produced by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary identifies West Mercia as delivering high levels of performance. It has consistently more than delivered the efficiency targets demanded of it. Some £16.5 million of efficiency gains has been delivered over the past five years. The HMIC report ranks the strategic management and the performance management of the force as excellent. It states that the authority has a strong record of effective budgetary control. I am doubly delighted about that because I know that at least two of my former students work in that department at the police authority—but no doubt the director of finance, Mr. Stephen Howarth, would also like to claim some credit for that.

West Mercia has one of the best performing estate management functions in the country. PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested in its external audit letter of 2002–03 that the force's report was one of the best that the auditor had issued. The force collaborates nationally and regionally to ensure best practice and procurement, and has consistently used civilian staff to release police officers for operational duties. Crime is falling in West Mercia, especially in the South Worcestershire division with which I am most familiar. The most recent figures for the city of Worcester show that between April and August 2004, compared with the same period last year, robbery was down by 59 per cent., vehicle crime down by 34 per cent., burglary down by 11 per cent. and violent crime down by 2 per cent. Of the violent crimes committed, 72 per cent. are detected. In the police performance monitoring report 2003–04, produced last month, West Mercia shows year-on-year improvement or above average performance in citizen focus, reducing crime, investigating crime, promoting public safety, providing assistance and resource usage—in short, all six performance measures that the Home Office uses.

However, like me, West Mercia wants the force to improve on what it does. That is why I should like to press the Minister for help with several matters. Let me make it quite clear that in calling for her assistance, I do not want to hear from her that salvation lies in a financial fairy godmother dressed in orange who, slapper-like, promises to take everyone to the ball—that is the Lib Dem way. Nor do I want to be fobbed off by revelations that some fantasy island exists far, far away, paved with cash to pay for more police funding—that is the Conservative way. I live in the real world, and I want real help.

First, the Minister will know of my support for West Mercia's bid for 40 extra community support officers. Achieving success in that bid will help to overcome some of the funding shortfalls that I highlighted earlier. Will she assure me that she will look favourably on that bid? I understand that such bids are usually heavily oversubscribed, and the Minister might be tempted to prioritise areas that do not yet have CSOs. I ask her, however, not to ignore those forces that took up the challenge to begin with and helped to pioneer the deployment of CSOs.

The second matter is the police grant for 2005–06. I hope that I have convinced the Minister of our case for increased grant, but I am well aware of the three-year formula freeze. I ask the Minister to consider granting area cost adjustment to West Mercia in the medium to long term, which would raise an extra £1.7 million on this year's figures if we received the same rate as neighbouring Gloucestershire. I also ask her to examine more closely the details of the formula. For example, low incomes as calculated through the working families tax credit could be used as a deprivation indicator, rather than just income support claimant counts, which count only the unemployed. Such a change was, interestingly, made for the education formula spending share last time it was reviewed.

Will the Minister use her influence over colleagues at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in discussions about local government finance? The following bodies had nominated or designated budgets this year: Herefordshire unitary authority, Hereford and Worcester combined fire authority, Telford and Wrekin council, and West Mercia police authority. It is glaringly obvious that there is a geographical bias unwittingly built into the system, as all those bodies lie in the West Mercia area. That reinforces the case that colleagues and I have made on behalf of Worcestershire county council over several years. For 2004–05 a standard increase in grant of 3.25 per cent. was paid to all police forces, meaning that none lost out comparatively. I know that the Home Office is under pressure to scrap such a floors-and-ceilings scheme, but I ask for such floors to be adopted again in the short term so that West Mercia is not penalised any further.

Thirdly, West Mercia currently receives the welcome rural sparsity grant that Mr. Keetch mentioned. It was first set up in 2001 and was ring-fenced to protect forces such as West Mercia. It brings in £2.3 million. Given what I said about the police grant, I ask the Minister to retain the grant as it is and not to incorporate it into the mainstream police grant. The rural sparsity grant exists because of the known higher cost of policing in rural areas. A small matter that has been pointed out is that, since its creation in 2001, the rural sparsity grant has not been increased in line with inflation. The Minister may want to correct that.

Finally, I urge the Minister to consider what I call nationalisation of the police pension scheme to avoid instability in levying council tax. Like all other forces, West Mercia funds its pension liabilities itself. Of course, that can vary from year to year depending on the age and the retirement profile of police officers. If that responsibility were taken away from the force and funding allocated centrally, local council tax payers would not see so much variation in council tax increases each year.

It is not doom and gloom in West Mercia—far from it. Crime is falling; police numbers are at record levels; CSOs are patrolling our streets and helping to tackle antisocial behaviour using the new tools. Divisions such as South Worcestershire are at the forefront of best practice in combating antisocial behaviour, including the use of dispersal zones. There is a real sense of ambition to press ahead to meet even greater challenges and to improve performance further. In the background, there are the financial constraints that I described. We want the Minister to use whatever influence she can to help West Mercia achieve even more.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:21 pm, 12th October 2004

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am glancing around to see how many colleagues are trying to catch your eye. I make it three more before we cut off at 3 o'clock, so we have a bit longer than we thought.

Having said that, there is, in many senses, not a great deal left to say; Mr. Foster said most of it. However, what is worth saying is worth repeating and I intend to do that, in part at least. I congratulate him on securing the debate. A number of us applied for it and he won the prize, so he got the opportunity to make the important points first. On that issue there is, largely, consensus in the three counties.

I do not agree with a couple of the things that the hon. Gentleman said. I will get them out of the way at the beginning so that I can return to a spirit of consensus. First, I regret the national policy points that he made, because there is genuine disagreement between the three parties about how to fund the overall level of public service expenditure. The issue that we are debating is not national policy, which is irrelevant; it is how the national pot is split between the geographical areas. That is the crucial issue. I happen to think that he is wrong about Conservative party policy and that his Government's policy is wrong, but that is irrelevant.

The issue is: how do we get a fair share of what the Government who are in power make available? The hon. Gentleman made the point about the obvious geographical issue so powerfully towards the end of his speech. If all those authorities are being capped, nominated, warned and threatened, something has gone wrong with the system.

The other thing that I disagreed with was the implication that the hon. Gentleman was led on to by his hon. Friend Peter Bradley that the level of council tax is acceptable. I have had many letters of protest from my constituents—I do not know how many off the top of my head, but 20, 30 or 40, which is quite a lot—complaining about the level of the council tax increase and always highlighting the police grant as one of the most unacceptable increases of all. So there is resistance to further council tax increases and we need to recognise that people on low and fixed incomes—across the country but certainly in my constituency—cannot tolerate further significant real-terms increases in council tax across any of the component precepting authorities. We must work towards a system in which they do not have to face those large increases.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

For the record, there have been complaints in my constituency about the level of council tax, but they are directed at the local authority and not at West Mercia police authority. I doubt that there is a single Member here, or anywhere else in West Mercia, who made representations to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that West Mercia should be capped.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful for that clarification. In Worcester and Wychavon, we are lucky that the district councils have kept the increase in line with inflation for their own precepting. However, the police precept is growing every year. If it increases in absolute and relative terms each year, clearly it becomes more of a problem and a bigger component of the council tax.

Let us get back to areas that we agree on. The trouble is that the situation is "Here we go again". Worcestershire seems to do badly on everything—schools, social services, fire authority, even health expenditure. I think that the same is true of Herefordshire and Shropshire too, but it is certainly true of Worcestershire.—[Interruption.]—My hon. Friend Mr. Paterson will, I am sure, speak for Shropshire.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I will speak for Herefordshire as well. I will happily speak for the whole of West Mercia, because we agree that there is a shared problem of considerable dimensions.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Worcester said in his comprehensive opening remarks. We have a very efficient and well run police authority. I, too, pay tribute to our new chief constable, Paul West, who is an outstanding chief officer; to chief superintendent Simon Adams, a truly excellent policeman whom the hon. Gentleman and I share as divisional commander; and to my local district inspector, Steve Booker, a first rate policeman who looks after Wychavon. We are very lucky in the officers that we have, but the problems are there and they are very real.

The hon. Gentleman gave some figures, but I do not think that he gave the following. If I am repeating the ones that he gave, I am sorry, but the point is that all our neighbouring police authorities receive more from Government than we do. Not surprisingly, the West Midlands—the biggest—receives £150.01 per head of population; Gwent receives £130.01; North Wales receives £117.48; Cheshire receives £109.76; Dyfed-Powys receives £105.09; Staffordshire receives £104.27; Gloucestershire receives £103.88; Warwickshire receives £97.07; and poor old West Mercia at the bottom receives £92.24, which is by far the lowest—the ring in the middle of the doughnut. Even dragging us up to Warwickshire's apparently low level would give us an extra £5 million in central Government grant. By my calculation—which differs slightly from that of the hon. Gentleman—bringing us up to the average for most similar forces, which is probably the best measure to use, would give us an extra £6.83 million. That would be a significant bonus.

Nationally, police authorities are saying, "Please can we have a 5.4 per cent. to 5.5 per cent. grant increase this year?" I would ask for that on behalf of West Mercia, too. The Government are talking about increasing grants to public authorities in line with inflation. Governments have always done that; this Government are doing it and the previous Government did it. The trouble is, however, that such grants are largely grants to pay salaries and pensions, and salaries and pensions go up by more than inflation. The figure that the Government should use as the measure by which they increase grants is the increase in average wages, because it would be fairer. The problem of police pensions, rightly highlighted by the hon. Member for Worcester, compounds the problem. I share his plea to keep the floors and the ceilings. They are crucial to resolving this problem and their removal would be devastating for West Mercia constabulary.

I want to make the point about neighbours again. The hon. Gentleman rightly talked about area cost adjustment. It is iniquitous that we do not receive that adjustment. When I canvass and knock on doors in my constituency, I am amazed by the number of West Midlands police officers whom I find living in Droitwich. The West Midlands, which gets area cost adjustment for the extra cost of recruiting and paying officers, gets that money and then takes them from the West Mercia area. I always love meeting police officers, but it always galls me to think that such a police officer is judged by the Government to be worth more than a similar officer living next door but working for a different police authority.

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

Does the hon. Gentleman know that in my part of Herefordshire, wonderfully commanded by Kevin Bentley, the divisional commander, we have officers working for Gloucestershire constabulary? It is not only Warwickshire and the West Midlands that receive the adjustment but Gloucestershire and Cheshire. Once again, when compared with our neighbours we are being badly treated.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

It is a delight to agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right, and there is no justification for maintaining that discrimination when all the other forces around us are getting so much more.

My figures for the amount we would receive at Gloucestershire's level of area cost adjustment are the same as those of the hon. Member for Worcester—about another £1.7 million, which would make a big difference. I have received encouraging reassurances from the Minister about the rural sparsity grant. It is an important grant, which we must maintain.

Pensions lie at the heart of the difficulty. Perhaps the Minister will say something in her winding-up speech about the Government's overall plans for police pensions. West Mercia does not face a unique problem; it is shared across the whole country. It is a difficult nettle to grasp, but unless it is grasped soon, it threatens to undermine the whole system of police funding for the foreseeable future. The issue is important not just in West Mercia but across the country.

I am sceptical, in the best sense of the word, about community support officers. I would rather have real police officers than two-thirds police officers. My chief constable is working firmly, clearly and authoritatively to persuade me that I am wrong. He may yet persuade me; I am not yet there.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

May I put this right? They are not substitutes, proxies or semi-police officers. They are what they say they are: community support officers. They play a crucial role in the community. As I said earlier, we have 21, with more to come, in Telford and Wrekin. They have been widely welcomed, not only when they were introduced but ever since, for the presence and reassurance they provide and for the work that they do to address low-level crime, which has such a high-level impact on community life.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. It is a point of view; it is not one that I happen to share. I would rather have real, fully-fledged police officers with all the powers available to them. I will not get into a debate about community support officers now; we are talking about West Mercia.

However, given that we have such people and that the Government want them to exist in greater numbers, I want us to have a reasonable whack of them. I have written in support of the bid from the West Mercia constabulary for additional community support officers. How much better would it be if we were offered extra police officers instead?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

There is an important point here. Our main beef is the unfairness of the current system and the way in which central funds are distributed. Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with community support officers is that certain funds are allotted purely to funding support officers, not necessarily policemen? Our chief constable and others might, given a free choice, spend their money on real police officers.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I would prefer it if one single cheque came from the Government to West Mercia police authority every year, so that it could decide its priorities free of the wretched targets that distort the way in which policing is conducted in West Mercia.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am trying to draw my remarks to a conclusion, but I will give way one last time.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford

The hon. Gentleman is being most generous, as he always is. The chief constable has made it clear to me and to other Members in meetings that CSOs count as civilian staff in the West Mercia force calculations. We are not talking about police officers; there have been more police officer posts and CSO staff, who are counted as civilian staff. There is no hidden bureaucracy in terms of civilianisation—they are counted in that way.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I did not suggest that there was, and if the hon. Gentleman thought that I did, that was quite wrong. Those people are obviously low-level police officers, although they may count as civilians, but I would rather have a fully-fledged policeman or woman. I would rather pay a little extra and get somebody fully qualified, with all the powers of arrest and detention that these people ought to have. This is a separate debate, but if there are extra policing resources, whatever shape they take, we want our fair share. [Laughter.] I am sorry if hon. Members find that amusing, but I think that they would find it equally amusing if I backed a bid for community support officers without making it clear that I would rather we did not have them. I would rather have police officers.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I would rather have police officers.

We have had a welcome increase in police officers over recent years, but that has been paid for by council tax payers. There is a limit to what the council tax payer can bear. In my judgment, we have the absolute minimum level of policing in West Mercia. It is true that we live in a relatively low-crime area. There has apparently been some success, although detection rates could improve.

A stack of crimes goes on in Wychavon, which I know about, and which the police tell me that they do not have the resources to police. They range from fly tipping to immigration to driving offences related to illegal gangmaster activity. If we had the resources, we could deal with those offences. We need more police officers, and I do not think that the council tax payer should have to pay for them. It is about time that Government—not this Government, but Government in general—gave Worcestershire the fair deal that it has lacked for so long.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest 2:34 pm, 12th October 2004

I also thank Mr. Foster for obtaining this debate, and doing such a brilliant job on the brief, which I am sure that we have all received, so that none of us has to remember the masses of figures that he produced.

This is a vital issue for the whole of West Mercia. I want to remind the Minister, who does not come from particularly nearby, what West Mercia is. The name derives from the Welsh marches, so we are men of the marches. In Bewdley in my constituency, there is even still an area called Catchem's End, which is just the English side of the River Severn. We believe that that was the last place where the Welsh could be caught on their way back to Wales. Or was it the last place where they could catch the English on the way back to England?

Photo of Paul Keetch Paul Keetch Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Defence

Just as a point of historical fact, in the precincts of Hereford cathedral close one is still permitted to shoot Welshmen, using a bow and arrow, on market day. The historic practice of chasing Welshmen in the Welsh marches has been the preserve of Herefordians for many centuries.

Photo of Richard Taylor Richard Taylor Independent, Wyre Forest

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention. I wonder whether he also knows that the Mercians invaded Wessex and Northumbria and almost took Bamburgh castle. However, we are not campaigning in that sort of way. All that we want, as has been said by so many hon. Members, is absolute fairness across the board, so that the West Mercia police can have the same crack of the whip as other like authorities. I shall not go into the figures; I shall be just a little parochial, as was the hon. Member for Worcester, and mention some improvements that have happened in my local patch.

The 300-officer increase across the area has been of tremendous benefit. Although people still do not see as many police officers around as they would like to, they are beginning to see more than they did. The police are able to enforce an alcohol-free zone, and to do more about antisocial behaviour. However, people still complain to me about the lack of police presence.

The limitation on the way in which the police can tackle the drug problem is alarming. I have driven around the constituency with policemen and they have shown me the light on outside a house that means that the drug dealer is in there and is ready to deal, but they cannot tackle him under those circumstances. The problem of pensions has been mentioned, as has that of custody facilities. I believe that there is one facility in West Mercia—not in my patch—that is full by 2 pm on a Saturday. Call handling is improving, but needs to do so more, and more help is needed to counter antisocial behaviour.

I acknowledge that we get a rural sparsity grant, and reinforce the comments that have been made: we must keep it. West Mercia is a slightly odd selection in that it is largely rural but has some fairly big cities and many moderate-sized market towns. It is a difficult area to police. I do not quite understand the floors and the ceilings, but I take the point that they are essential for us, so they must be kept.

Historically, West Mercia is a low-cost and highly efficient authority, as has been confirmed by Her Majesty's inspectorate. It provides good value for money. It has more than achieved efficiency savings in the past few years; the authority actually put in a restrained precept last year. It is almost another example of an authority being penalised for efficiency and economy. There is also an understandable local feeling that if the economies had not been made and the precept had not been restrained, we probably would not have suffered so much.

To conclude, we must maintain the sparsity grant and the floors. Area cost adjustment should be considered, as it is in so many other instances in which the counties are disadvantaged. I disagree with Mr. Luff about community support officers. They are uniformed bodies who are very obvious around the place. As they count as civilian staff, they are a tremendous addition. They certainly do a very good job in my area, and I ask for support for the bid for the extra 40 CSOs.

West Mercia has a very high number of civilian staff, which does release the uniformed officers. I praise it for that. The crucial problem, however, is that the Government grant per head is one of the lowest, so the proportion paid by local taxpayers is much higher than the average. Policing is such an important issue for the Government that I long to hear whether the Minister will address our problems in West Mercia.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities 2:40 pm, 12th October 2004

When I was elected in 2001, I calculated that I probably represented one of the least policed areas of the country. At that time, before the increase, West Mercia had the second lowest number of police per head of population in the country. My constituency of 63,000 electors had only 63 police officers, which was about half the average for West Mercia. I am delighted to say that when West Mercia decided two years ago to raise council tax by 33 per cent. in order to recruit an extra 300 officers—a decision that I fully supported—my constituency gained 22 extra officers. That increase of a third was thanks not to Government funding but to a local decision bravely taken by the chief constable and the police authority. I believe that that decision had the support of every Member to whom I have ever spoken, which might put into perspective for the Minister just how far down the scale West Mercia is when it comes to police numbers. London has something like seven times as many police officers per head of population as my constituency does. Admittedly, we are a low-crime area, but we still need policing. Given shift systems and the like, it does not take a genius to work out that not many police officers are on duty in my area at any one time.

As Mr. Foster clearly said—I am delighted to congratulate him on securing this very timely debate, and congratulate other Members who have spoken—the basic problem is that the grant for West Mercia is much lower than for almost any other police authority, including the comparators. That is the basic root of the problem. However, several other issues have compounded it, some of which I shall discuss. Of particular concern is the way in which West Mercia ended up being nominated for next year, which caught even the Home Office by surprise.

We have heard that even a standstill for next year might need a 9.8 per cent. council tax rise because of the effects that have been discussed. This would clearly put West Mercia in line to be nominated or capped next year as well, which is of considerable worry. As we have heard, the force needs to address some very important matters, particularly in relation to custody suites, or cells as most of the public call them—"custody suites" is a very modern term. There are no custody suites in my constituency at the moment. The force has had to close them, quite rightly, because of modern requirements for handling prisoners.

If someone is arrested in Ludlow, the nearest custody suite is Shrewsbury. It takes two police officers 50 minutes to drive that person to the custody suite, log them in and do all the necessary work. It takes two officers away for several hours—I have already said how few officers there are in my constituency—just to take an offender to the custody suite. There are plans to install a new custody suite at Leominster in Herefordshire—[Interruption.] Mr. Wiggin does not appear to be here. Leominster is just down the A49 and about 10 to 15 minutes from Ludlow, which would make a significant difference to the number of police who can be active in my constituency. They can be back in the area much quicker if they need to make arrests. However, that custody suite is not in next year's funding proposals for a 5.5 per cent. increase and a possible 9.8 per cent. rise in council tax, about which we have heard. Things that are very necessary will not happen as a result.

Photo of Mr Paul Marsden Mr Paul Marsden Shadow Minister, Transport

As my hon. Friend said earlier, is that not the crux of the matter? The figure cited of between £6.8 million and £7.9 million is below the level for most similar forces, but West Mercia is facing a cut of £517,000 this year, and that happens year after year. Surely the Minister realises that that must end.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: West Mercia faces a £517,000 shortfall in what it would have projected to spend next year without allowing for growth.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman said that his hon. Friend was right. As I understand it, his hon. Friend is not right in claiming that there will be a cut of £500,000 in West Mercia's funding. What the hon. Gentleman described is not what his hon. Friend described.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

It is not a cut in this year's budget. No; it is an enforced holding down of next year's budget. That is what nomination is; in effect, it will result in a cut in what probably would have been spent next year. It is semantics to argue about whether we should call it a cut.

I shall briefly mention some of my concerns about the process for deciding next year's nomination. When the Minister for Local and Regional Government met the police authority to discuss the matter, I understand that one of the factors that he took into account was the fact that complaints had been made about the size of the rise. I believe that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister received one complaint about the size of the rise—from just one person—yet that one complaint seemed significant to the Minister for Local and Regional Government.

There is a problem with the Government's tactics. They announced that there would be potential capping to keep authorities' spending down; then, to ensure that council tax was kept low, the Chancellor gave extra money to local authorities. That money pulled them all down a couple of percentage points. However, the money went only to local councils; it did not go to police authorities. That fact was missed by the ODPM, which went ahead with the capping without realising that it would not help the police authorities—which it clearly cannot do, because it comes from a different funding pot.

I am concerned that exactly the same will happen next year. If West Mercia has to look for a 9.8 per cent. rise in council tax, it will be told that it must be kept down. Ministers from the ODPM have already made it clear that it should be lower this year than last, and I am sure that they will hammer it down. I am also sure that, just before the projected election next year, the Chancellor will hand over some cash to make council tax even lower. I can see it happening; but it will not affect police authorities if it is done then as it was done this year, and the police authorities could find themselves caught out.

I reiterate the plea that we heard earlier about area cost adjustment. I regularly canvass police officers in my constituency who work for West Midlands police. They freely admit that they prefer to live in Shropshire, although some experienced officers later come to work for West Mercia police. Those officers get the area cost adjustment for working in the West Midlands police area while living in the West Mercia area. It is clear that West Mercia should have an area cost adjustment. I hope also that the Minister will keep and increase the sparsity grant, which has not kept pace with inflation since its introduction. It was welcome then, but at best it is now in danger of stagnation. In time, that will further increase the problems for West Mercia.

Finally, we are debating the subject today because of a national political problem over council tax. West Mercia has been nominated for next year, but that is down to the fact that the Government have become very nervous about the level of council tax. Until they get to grips with council tax, scrapping it and replacing it with something fairer that is based on the ability to pay, they will continue to have such problems and to deprive local forces of the ability to take their own decisions. I am sure that every Member backs the idea of local police authorities being able to take decisions for themselves about the number of police and how to pay for them, rather than being brought to heel, so to speak, by Ministers in London who act for national political reasons, without any judgment on the way those local forces are run.

Photo of Mr John McWilliam Mr John McWilliam Labour, Blaydon

Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to be as brief as he can, because we want to get to the wind-ups?

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

I shall be extremely brief because many of the points have been made. I congratulate Mr. Foster on landing this debate, which is a matter of great interest to all our constituents, and on having assembled all the Members for Shropshire for the first time since Shropshire Life got us together on the green. I also congratulate him on excluding Lembit Öpik, who muscled in on the photograph.

In connection with such matters of great historical note, I remind Dr. Taylor that one of the kings of Mercia, who was obviously of the soft left, made it policy to chop off the hand of any Welshman caught the wrong side of Offa's dyke. However, his successor, who perhaps came from the middle way, chopped their heads off.

We have heard a lot of figures and the hon. Member for Worcester clearly elucidated the situation. The brutal figure for West Mercia is £92.24 but in the case of North Wales police—at the bottom of the hill where I live—every resident receives £117.48. That is a brutal, simple fact. We are not complaining about the global sum of money, but about the unfairness of the distribution system, which goes back to before the Government came to power, to the advanced ideas of West Mercia about civilianising—a ghastly piece of jargon—which basically meant replacing police officers answering telephones with civilians. Of the 4,000 staff, 2,600 are civilians and 1,400 are officers. West Mercia is being penalised for its advanced thinking from several years ago. Will the Minister look at the situation?

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman made what is, I am sure, an innocent mistake. The police officer complement, as I understand it, is 2,424, not 1,400, although there are 1,602 police staff. Well over 50 per cent. of those employed by West Mercia are actually police officers.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

I am grateful for that contribution, but the figures I mentioned were those that I jotted down when I went with my hon. Friend Mr. Luff. I am sure that we can sort them out later but, regardless of which figures are right, my point is that West Mercia replaced police officers with civilians early on and is now being penalised because of the way the system has been built.

When I wrote to the Home Secretary, I received a kind response from the Minister of State that contained a paragraph that I should like her to elucidate. The letter said:

"You say that the West Mercia Constabulary is unfairly funded as their grant per head of population is different to neighbouring forces. We do not distribute funding on this basis. Grant varies between authorities with a range of socio-economic characteristics reflecting a range of relative policing needs. There are no objective grounds to suggest that West Mercia is unfairly funded".

But to anyone paying council tax, £92.24 as compared with £117.48 is unfair. That bears down disproportionately on my poorest constituents, who are the ones who write to me about the global area of council tax. I take a middle way between Peter Bradley and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire.

I have had a lot of letters complaining about the global level of council tax, but which do not mention the precept especially, but it is worth pointing out that 300 extra officers were all funded by increases in council tax, and not from central Government. In the next line of the letter the Minister rather gives things away. She states:

"I recognise that formula changes implemented in 2003–04 did shift resources in favour of more urban areas."

That, bluntly, means that there was a shift by central Government, which did not favour rural areas. The Minister must acknowledge that, so I ask her to reply with reference first to the civilianisation, which went ahead very early in West Mercia, and secondly, to the clear shift of central Government money from rural to urban areas.

I entirely endorse the comments made by Matthew Green on cells. The cells in Market Drayton and Oswestry were closed about five years ago, which caused considerable upset in the area. The people who were put in those cells were, frankly, what one would call low-tech cases. Nearly all of them were people who had had too much to drink. I entirely endorse the practice of taking more dangerous cases off to high-quality custody suites, but it is ridiculous that two policemen should be driving people around Shropshire in a van. In one case someone went from Oswestry to Shrewsbury to Telford and ended up in Worcester, which is nonsensical.

I should like the Minister to examine the health and safety regulations on cells. We have an excellent new chief constable, who is carrying out a review of the matter. I hope that the Minister will give him a helping hand, so that the cells can be reopened for the low-tech cases that I referred to.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:55 pm, 12th October 2004

I congratulate Mr. Foster on securing not only the debate but the support of hon. Members representing constituencies in Worcestershire, Shropshire and at least half of Herefordshire, and on achieving a degree of consensus about what is obviously an important local issue. I speak of a degree of consensus because it clearly frayed at the edges with the occasional difference of opinion and some forays into the subject of the heptarchy and its doings, which I am not sure are entirely relevant to the subject of the West Mercia police authority.

What clearly unites hon. Members from the part of England in question is the feeling that they are not being given a fair deal for their police authority, and that they want things to improve. They are right to bring that matter forward today, and I have a sense of déjà vu because I remember all too clearly similar debates about different parts of the country, taking place over years—not least when I was the chairman of a police authority in the era of capping, when there were no increases in police numbers, and when the Home Secretary was Mr. Howard. We remember, and recognise the difficulties.

Most hon. Members were astonished, after last year's capping announcement, to find that a police authority had apparently been plucked out of the air for the nomination. It is a great shame that there was not a separate debate on the police authorities in the context of the capping debate, because it would have been extremely useful to bring out some of the issues then in a way that the brief statement on local authorities and police authorities did not make possible.

When we study the position of West Mercia police authority, and the fact that it has been nominated, and consider what the hon. Member for Worcester said about the other local authorities in the area which were capped or nominated at the same time, we can draw only two reasonable conclusions. Either the people of West Mercia have collectively lost the use of their critical faculties with respect to their local authority members, or somehow the formula is wrong. Some hon. Members may doubt it, but I suspect that the latter is the case.

When I consider policing authorities across the country, I notice that we are also asked to believe that every police authority—they are not usually the most profligate authorities or the most cavalier in their use of public resources—has apparently in the past year taken leave of its senses and incorporated a substantial council tax increase. Indeed, the average increase for all 43 authorities was 11.7 per cent. We must either believe that police authorities as a class have taken leave of their senses, or that there may be something wrong with the Government formula for distributing grant and providing for local authorities. I think that the latter is the case.

I am not speaking as an advocate for West Mercia—my responsibilities lie elsewhere—but I have looked at the way in which it spends its money. Is it spending appropriately? Yes, as far as I can see. Is it using its resources well? Yes, as far as I can see, and as far as Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, the Audit Commission and everyone else who has investigated can see. Is it spending, empirically, a high amount on policing? No, it is not. The fact that it is not is transparent from the figures that we have all been given. Is it following the Government's intentions? Yes it is: it is employing the extra police officers whom the Government boast of having employed. If one looks at the Government paper, "Policing: building safer communities together", one can see the Minister smiling on the front page and boasting about the real achievements that continue to be made, such as the fact that the number of police officers has risen to an historic high. That is true, and I congratulate the Government on that, but she cannot will that end and not will the means by which to support it, which is what West Mercia has done by increasing its precept to pay for extra police officers.

If one looks at the figures for West Mercia—I have just done some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on those figures—one can see that the spending per head on policing is instructive, because it has risen substantially over the seven years of Labour Administration: it has gone from £92.30 to £133.31. That is an increase of just over £41, or about 42 per cent. That is great. That is doing the job that the Government were elected to do, and which they promised to do. However, the Government spending for West Mercia over the same period has gone from £76.74 per person to £90.04. That is a rather more miserly increase of £13.30, which is about 17 per cent. The contribution from council tax payers—here is the rub—has gone from £15.56 in 1996–97 to £43.27 last year. That is an increase of £26.71, or 170 per cent. That is the difference: Government spending is up 17 per cent., while council tax payers' contributions are up 170 per cent.—a tenfold percentage increase. That is why people get upset.

I accept what hon. Members around the Chamber have said—that they have had very few letters criticising the police precept, because people generally want their money to be spent on policing. People do not see why they should spend extra money and not get anything to show for it: they are happy to pay to see extra officers on the street, but they are not happy to pay a council tax increase that is out of all proportion to the benefit that they derive from it. I must say that council tax increases often appear to be entirely arbitrary.

There is a deep, dark secret in this place, which is that the three major parties in this House agree to a large extent about what we want to happen with policing. There is a degree of consensus that would, were it to be known outside, entirely ruin the careers of some of our colleagues. We understand what is needed and we want extra police officers. Some hon. Members have reservations about community support officers. As far as I am concerned, they are a useful adjunct to, but not a replacement for, police officers—that is the view that we have always taken. We want to see investment for efficiency. We want police officers to be given tools that keep them on the streets rather than in police stations filling out forms. I think that we all agree on that.

My hon. Friend Matthew Green and others spoke about custody suites. They are important because if a police officer has to travel to put an arrested person into custody, that is a huge disincentive to making an arrest. When arrests are made, police officers are effectively taken off the streets while they travel to the nearest custody suite, which can be a long way in rural areas.

Photo of Mr Peter Bradley Mr Peter Bradley PPS (Rt Hon Alun Michael, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Will he support the initiative to issue on-the-spot fines that the Government have had under trial? In cases of low-level crime such as those to which Mr. Paterson referred, such fines would free up custody centres and would mean that time would not be spent conveying people who would otherwise be arrested from the scene of the crime to the custody suite or police station, and then further afield.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The answer to that question is yes, but with reservations. We have debated the initiative in statutory instrument Committees, and the Minister knows that I have strong reservations about its effectiveness when it comes to children over 10. We still need to see evidence that it is effective in reducing recidivism. Only if it does that is it effective. If a fine by means of a fixed penalty notice, rather than an arrest, does not deter someone from committing crime again, we must rethink. However, that obviously has a value in reducing police time. We are clear about that.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions, Young People, Non-Departmental & Cross-Departmental Responsibilities

The point about on-the-spot fines, though, is that many of the people arrested and in custody suites on Friday and Saturday nights are drunk and disorderly, and they cannot be given an on-the-spot fine and be left on the streets to continue to be drunk and disorderly. One whole point of the police action is to take them away and put them in a cell, if only to recover from the state into which they have got themselves. Such offences are clearly not suitable for on-the-spot fines.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The biggest deterrent to crime is the expectation of being caught, which increases when people know that there are enough police officers to do the job. To have enough police officers, we have to have the budget to pay the police officers. That is the simple arithmetic of the matter.

There will be strains on any police authority budget. We know about the issues of wages and pensions. I was promised by David Maclean when I went to see him in 1996—I remember this well—that by January there would be a solution to the police pensions problem, but that has never happened. It did not happen under the previous Conservative Government and it has not happened under this Government. We still have a huge difficulty with that.

We can have our arguments about our ideas for police reform. I should like to see a bolder move towards a national police force that takes away national functions and leaves chief constables to fight local crime effectively and concentrate on local issues. That is my party's view. I would also have a different system of financing, which might be better or worse. We could have a political debate on that, but it is not today's question. It would be right to have a relationship between local areas and the chief constable, for example through some form of minimum policing contracts—local contracts that provide for a minimum number of police. That is particularly important in rural areas that abut urban areas, where we so often see the rural police officer absorbed into the city environment to fight crime. That happens for perfectly understandable reasons, but the people in rural areas feel that they are deprived of their police cover.

All those are matters for debate, but our real concern today is that the problems are not just in West Mercia, although it has particular characteristics. It is a largely rural force; it does not have a large city; it suffers as a result of the formula; it is outside the area cost adjustment. I must say that I do not agree with simply extending the area cost adjustment to take in another police force area; the problem is the system, not the fact that it does not happen to cover the particular authority in question. More importantly, however, a huge problem is looming next year. We know that a gap is coming, we know what demands there will be on the Home Office's overall budget and we know that, at the moment, it cannot meet the demands of the police service. That is where the Minister needs to focus her attention. How do we close that £350 million gap that the police authorities recognise, without laying off officers—a tragedy at a time when we are finally getting more officers on the streets—or the civilian staff who allow the police officers to do the job for which we pay them? That is the difficulty that the Government face, and I have not yet heard any sort of answer on it. Perhaps we will not hear that until the next Budget.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General 3:08 pm, 12th October 2004

May I say to Mr. Foster how pleasant it is to attend and to listen to this debate? Although I know parts of West Mercia extremely well, I do not do so as a politician. Hearing about individual problems, or a wide problem pulled down to an individual area, is always extraordinarily productive for us in understanding how policies work on the ground. We owe the hon. Member a debt for having secured today's debate.

I shall not be drawn on the issue of the Welsh, save to say that I do not think that such comments are made only in West Mercia. Where my wife's cousins come from in Yorkshire, the rubbish at the bottom of the farmyard is called keltea. When I inquired as to why that was, I was told that the only etymological origin for the word was the rubbish left behind by marauding Celts when they were seen off. I think that the Welsh might have something to complain about in that respect.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. Speaking as the descendant of some of those marauding Celts, I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not mean me.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thought that my comment would probably provoke a response. I shall rapidly move on to the substance of my comments.

Today's debate has highlighted the similarities between the problems of West Mercia and those of Thames Valley, which is the area that I represent. The clear connections between them identify a difference that the Government will need to deal with. West Mercia was set up in 1967 in exactly the same way as Thames Valley was set up. The areas were rural in the way that our grandfathers would have understood the term: deep countryside, market towns, county towns and very little else. Since that time, the population and infrastructure in areas such as West Mercia and Thames Valley have developed proportionately far more than in other areas of Britain, but, historically, expenditure on policing, particularly on police numbers, has not kept pace with that level of development.

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have identified particular complaints. The area that I represent, which is on the edge of London but not within London—without London or Birmingham weighting allowances—has all the things that highlight police areas that have problems. There are difficulties with recruitment and retention. Other police forces are more attractive, and the number of police per head of population is proportionately low. It is no surprise that Dyfed-Powys just over the border from West Mercia has the highest clear-up rate in the country, as it also has the highest rate in England and Wales of police per head of population.

This is not rocket science. The problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies and that I hope the Minister will deal with—it is a non-partisan issue—is how to succeed in moving the civil servants at the Home Office into making police area assessments that are not 25 years behind the times. That is one of the key problems in policing areas such as West Mercia or my own area, Thames Valley.

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that policing had been a success in the past 12 months. It is certainly true that crime rates have been coming down, but the overall position in respect of violent crime in West Mercia since 1998–99 is absolutely horrific, with a rise of 195 per cent. between 1998–99 and 2003–04. The rates may be coming down for the first time, but they are certainly not going down to the levels that existed before 1998–99, or before the Labour Government's election to office in 1997. It seems that that considerable challenge is not being met.

Hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), have commented on the necessity for fairness in the allocation of money. I agree that the burden of the 300 extra police officers has been put entirely on the precept, and that that is an unsustainable and unattractive prospect. One only has to look at how the council tax police element has been treated since 1996–97 to see an all too familiar pattern of whacking rises, which were interrupted in 2000–01 to 2001–02 by the imminence of a general election, when cash was suddenly made available. The amount spent in those two years went up from £74.06 to only £78.50. That form of stop-go funding is dependent only on the extent to which the Government think that the electorate will punish them. In the long term, such funding is unsustainable. I wait to hear from the Minister how the Government intend to deal with those points.

I conclude with the wider issue, which is whether we have enough police officers to do the job. I believe that the answer is clear from this debate. We do not. If we wish to move towards the forms of neighbourhood policing that have been successful in other countries in achieving reductions in crime, we will have to fund the necessary police officers to do the job.

That is why my party carried out its study two years ago of what was required. It concluded that 40,000 extra police officers in England and Wales were required to achieve proper neighbourhood policing, that CSOs cannot be a substitute for that—even though I am sure they play a useful role—and that, if we want to achieve a reduction in crime, we will have to put the funding in.

That is why we committed ourselves to increasing the police force by 40,000 officers. We intend to carry out that promise. It will take several years to achieve—officers cannot be recruited overnight—but we are deeply committed to the plan, because it is the only way in which the electorate in West Mercia, or anywhere else, will see a proper benefit from the money that they pay in tax in relation to the police.

That is the challenge. I fear that the Minister will not be able to meet it. The truth of the matter is that the Home Secretary has been carpeted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer over the issue of expenditure on policing. He has failed to persuade the Prime Minister to back him up—indeed, the Prime Minister now seems to be rather supine in the face of the Chancellor. Real savings could be identified in the Home Office by grappling with issues such as immigration and asylum. Until all those things happen, the extra money for the real increase in police numbers that we need will not be available. In the meantime, it is the poor old council tax payer who will be required to pick up a burden that, frankly, going by the figures, is intolerable.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 3:16 pm, 12th October 2004

I will endeavour to deal with as many points raised by Members as I possibly can. This has been a lively and interesting debate and I want to congratulate, in particular, my hon. Friend Mr. Foster on obtaining the debate. I am sure that all of his colleagues would join me in that. I am delighted that, on the whole, Members have concentrated on the particular matter of West Mercia, on which there is a degree of cross-party concern. Later, I might come on to some of the more provocative comments made by Mr. Grieve, although I will try to restrict myself—tempted as I am—to concentrating on the issues that we are debating.

Like the hon. Member for Beaconsfield, I am not that familiar with the West Mercia area, although I had the recent pleasure of attending an extremely good event organised by my hon. Friends the Members for Telford (David Wright) and for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley). We got together to discuss antisocial behaviour with local police officers, the local authority and local residents. I was hugely impressed by the commitment of all parties in that area, not just to tackling antisocial behaviour, but to dealing with residents' fear of crime. Certainly the feedback that I have received is that that is beginning to bear fruit. I am absolutely delighted that antisocial behaviour powers are increasingly being used and I congratulate my hon. Friends on taking the initiative in organising that event.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has done an excellent job in setting out the police authority's case and he has given us a great deal of factual information. However, I want to confirm to Members that the background to the position in West Mercia is that there has been significant extra investment in policing, both by the Government and indeed locally by council tax payers. The increases in police strength, community support officer numbers and police staff levels all reflect the increasing investment that local people wanted to see to provide more safety and more security in their communities. That is reflected nationally. We now have the largest number of police officers that we have ever had in this country: there are nearly 140,000 police officers, and together with 4,000 community support officers they provide that essential reassurance.

So although there will be issues about particular areas, levels of funding, the distribution of the grant and the way in which it is calculated, I ask all hon. Members to bear it in mind that those issues exist against the background of a significant investment in policing over the past few years. Every Member, as a constituency Member, will begin to notice that their constituents are telling them that, while they still want to see more police officers, they are beginning to see the difference on the ground, in their communities.

Clearly there is much more to be done. I am not for a moment complacent about our record. That is why we had the five-year strategic plan, why we shall issue a White Paper very soon and why we shall issue the next edition of the national policing plan. We shall continue to try to ensure that our police service is as efficient as it can be and that we get the best productivity out of the investment that we make.

I was disappointed by the contribution of Mr. Luff, who appeared simply to cleave to the past and to a traditional way of doing things. I say to him that, if we are to get the best value out of public investment in our public services—including investment in policing—we must be more creative about the way in which those services work. We must use science, technology and civilianisation and we must implement work force modernisation to free up police officers to work on the front line. I was disappointed by his statement, which I would characterise as an old-fashioned view of the world. I ask him to open up his horizons and to be a bit more creative.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister has raised a provocative and important point. West Mercia constabulary has been at the forefront of innovation in policing. It was at the forefront of thinking outside the box and being modern and it is now being penalised for its pioneering approach. I am all in favour of being modern, but that must mean selectively modern. Modernity is not good for its own sake.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I do not for a moment dispute West Mercia's excellent record as an efficient police authority. I was referring to the hon. Gentleman's personal views rather than to the performance of West Mercia, and was making a plea for him to be a bit more open-minded about the way in which public services in this country are conducted.

On the settlement for West Mercia last year, Members will know that we did our best to maximise the amount of police grant that was available. We got £140 million from other Home Office budgets. So we were not terribly popular in the Home Office but we garnered as much as we could for the police general grant because we know that it is a top priority for the public. We then put an extra £100 million from specific grants into the general grant and we decided—exceptionally—that we would have a standard rate of general grant increase of 3.25 per cent.

That decision benefited West Mercia. If we had implemented the funding formula in full, the force would have received a grant of £106.4 million, but because of the floor of 3.25 per cent., it received £107.7 million. It received £1.3 million more because the floor was there. Mr. Paterson referred to the letter that I sent him that showed that we had provided the floors and, therefore, that West Mercia had received slightly more funding than the formula would have given it. Although the formula has been changed and, if it were implemented, would shift resources towards urban areas that have greater needs for policing, so far it has not been implemented because we took the exceptional decision last year to provide the 3.25 per cent. flat-rate settlement that protected West Mercia.

Today I heard a plea that we should continue to have those floors so that West Mercia will be protected in future. We are keen to return to a position where we can have some floors and ceilings, but obviously I understand the plea from authorities that are in a similar position to West Mercia that they should not be unduly penalised as a result of the reintroduction of floors and ceilings.

Clearly, I am not in a position to go into detail today about this year's police settlement. I will make an announcement about that in November, but I hear the strong plea. It was one of the reasons why, last year, we made that flat-rate settlement rather than implementing the funding formula. Members will know that authorities such as my own lost money. Greater Manchester lost £6 million. The West Midlands was £26 million adrift and the Metropolitan police were £54 million adrift. We are concerned that we use the flat-rate increase rather than floors and ceilings. I am sure that hon. Members will understand that other areas have difficulties as well.

This year, West Mercia was nominated on its budget increase. The reasons for that were that we were concerned to ensure that we had reasonable council tax increases. Concern was expressed, particularly by people on fixed incomes, about the level of council tax increases. Therefore, criteria were set around which people would either be nominated or designated on their budgets. We had had some large council tax increases in the preceding years and the measures that we took this year brought down the police precept from about 26 to 28 per cent. in 2003–04 to about 12 per cent. this year. The average total council tax increases were brought down to 5.9 per cent., compared with 12.9 per cent. in 2003–04. There was a need to exert that pressure on council tax, but I entirely understand why the three police authorities that found themselves on the wrong side of the criteria came in and made representations. I was present with my right hon. Friend from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Local and Regional Government, to hear them. West Mercia made a good case on the grounds of its efficiency and performance but unfortunately the criteria were set and there were no exceptional reasons to enable us to depart from the decision to nominate its budget in that case.

I cannot go into great detail about the settlement for next year, but we want to bring back the floors and ceilings if we can. We are working hard to maximise the amount we have for policing because we know that it is a top priority for the public. We have considered the information about the costs in the system from the Association of Police Authorities and from the Association of Chief Police Officers. I reject the phrase "police inflation", but I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about the committed costs for pay, pensions and increments. In drawing up the police settlement we are taking those costs into account as far as we can.

Inevitably, every organisation has fixed costs. I say to every police authority, including West Mercia, that they must consider different ways of carrying out their business in order to get as much productivity as they can out of the investment made so that they can meet their costs. I do not underestimate the challenges to the police authorities in doing that, but inevitably every organisation—public or private—must try to face up to such costs.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am not going to give way as I have only four minutes in which to address the issues raised.

Hon. Members raised the issue of the rural sparsity grant, and I am happy to confirm that it will remain in its present form for next year and there will be no change to the formula that underpins it. The rural fund will not be increased in line with inflation. The decision was made that, where there are any extra funds, we want to put them into the general police grant that can be spent at the discretion of forces. We are constantly under pressure to give people local discretion, but the main fund will recognise the particular pressures in rural areas.

I am delighted to tell hon. Members that this Government are making progress on police pensions. Unlike previous Governments we issued a consultation document, which came out in December 2003, and we have proposed a system whereby employers' and employees' contributions will go into a fund, pensions will be paid out of it and a central Government top-up will smooth out the volatility in the current system, which has been a real difficulty for police authorities. When there is a spike of people retiring, it is quite difficult to meet those pressures. Police authorities know when people are due to retire, so there should be an element of forward planning, but the system will be much better with a central fund whereby Government take the volatility and uncertainty out of the system. We hope to proceed in that manner. I hope that hon. Members acknowledge that, if achieved, that will be a significant step forward.

My hon. Friends the Members for Worcester, for Telford and for The Wrekin, together with Dr. Taylor, have pressed me on the application for additional CSOs. I am delighted that Members feel CSOs are making a significant contribution. They patrol for 70 per cent. of their time, and that is why they are different from police officers. They are not extracted to go to court and give evidence and they are not taken off to do other jobs; they are there to reassure the public, and that is why they are such a vital part of our police service. The comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire about their not being real police officers or being two-thirds of a police officer are very derogatory. I believe that they provide a good service.

I have heard the pleas of my hon. Friends, and I will be looking closely and carefully at the submission from West Mercia for extra CSOs. I have applications from across the country, but I will bear in mind the points made forcefully by hon. Friends.

I was delighted that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest acknowledged the complexity of floors and ceilings. His contribution was very refreshing. The contributions made about the possibility of shooting Welsh people in Hereford sounded to me like terribly antisocial behaviour, and I have no doubt that steps will be taken with regard to that.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to respond to all hon. Members' concerns. I see how important policing is to their local communities, and I am glad that they have taken the time and effort to attend and make representations. All I can confirm to them is that I shall bear in mind everything that they have said this afternoon when making decisions about the police settlement, and I am sure that we shall have the pleasure of debating the subject in future.