[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair] — Thames Valley Police

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 28th January 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury 9:30 am, 28th January 2009

I am conscious of several things, including the fact that a good number of Members from all three counties that make up the Thames valley—Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire—are in the Chamber, so I will keep my comments as brief as possible to enable every colleague who wishes to speak to make a full contribution to the debate.

I thank the Minister for being here, as well as for having spent half a day late last year in Bicester, in my constituency, looking at the excellent work being done on neighbourhood policing by Thames Valley police in north Oxfordshire. His visit was genuinely welcome.

This debate is co-ordinated. I would not want it to go unsung in dispatches that my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey co-ordinated our general submission of a request for a debate on the subject, nor would I want him to think that I was seeking to claim all the glory for an initiative that he helped to co-ordinate. This debate is the result, as I am sure the Minister will appreciate as it goes on, of a general frustration felt by Members from all political parties from all parts of the Thames valley about what is happening in policing there.

Last year, the Select Committee on Home Affairs undertook an inquiry on policing in the 21st century. The Chair of the Committee, Keith Vaz, said that the focus of that inquiry was on "recruitment and retention"—issues of concern to all of us who represent constituencies in the Thames valley area. Thames Valley police is the largest non-metropolitan police force in England, but it has one of the lowest ratios of police officers to population, which is a matter that relates to our grant. I have a strong suspicion that my hon. Friend John Howell will say something about that, Mr. Atkinson, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye.

The crux of the debate and of my concerns is the fact that the Thames Valley police force is experiencing significant loss of police officers through transfers to the Metropolitan Police Service. In the past five years, the Thames Valley police force has lost 360 officers to the Met police. Of those, 52 were specialist officers such as firearms officers, detectives and road policing officers, who are more expensive to train and replace. Indeed, Thames Valley police lost 12 detectives to the Met in one year.

We are not the only area concerned by loss of police officers to the Met. The same concern is shared by police forces in Hertfordshire, Surrey, Kent, Essex, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. However, a substantial proportion of those transferring to the Met come from the Thames Valley police area. Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley police, was clear in her evidence to the Select Committee about the reasons why:

"We believe that the different levels of pay in the Metropolitan Police Service contribute to that significantly and the free travel, from areas such as Thames Valley, up to 70 miles away from the centre of London also contributes to that."

A Thames Valley police officer who transfers to the Met is instantly £5,000 better off, as well as receiving free travel, which probably equates to about £8,000 a year in all. Housing is still expensive in the Thames valley, notwithstanding recent economic difficulties, and is a particular challenge for younger police officers. One can jump on a fast train pretty well anywhere in the Thames valley area—whether in Banbury or Bicester in my patch or in Reading, Slough, High Wycombe, Milton Keynes or indeed any of the constituencies represented by hon. Members who are present—and be in London within an hour. The temptation is strong for officers to transfer to the Met for higher pay and better benefits.

The loss of so many police officers has disproportionate impact on the make-up of Thames Valley police. The force has the highest percentage of officers with fewer than five years' service of all the police forces in England and Wales. I have been fortunate in the past year to take part in the police parliamentary scheme, which has involved spending several days on shift at Cowley police station, in the constituency of Mr. Smith. I was struck not just by the professionalism of the police officers, but by the fact that most of the officers going out into Oxford on shifts during the day, early in the day or late at night were largely recent recruits with little experience and service. That is not their fault; it is the reality of the turnover of officers in Thames Valley police.

Terri Teasdale, head of personnel at Thames Valley police, told the Select Committee:

"In relation to the transfers out, it is not the number; it is when you add them onto other people leaving—the normal turnover, if you like—and add capacity within the organisation to deal with the number of recruits that have to come in to replace them and the loss of experience. That is our concern to do with retention."

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for permitting me to intervene. Does he agree that that also has a by-product? In Chesham and Amersham, when officers leave from other parts of the police authority, police officers with a great deal of experience of a particular area often have to move away from that area, where their experience could help with crime reduction and creating a strong policing presence. There is an internal churn within Thames Valley police, which is often damaging to policing in our constituencies.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I suspect that both her constituency and mine are, in the totality of life, quiet compared with places such as Reading, Oxford or Slough. What tends to happen, therefore, is that if Thames Valley police are under pressure, officers are moved from constituencies such as hers and mine to areas where there are greater challenges, such as Oxford, Aylesbury or Slough. That is greatly unfair on her constituents and mine.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Shadow Minister (International Development)

On internal churn, although all areas within Thames Valley police are suffering from the problem that my hon. Friend is so clearly explaining, it is especially bad in the north, including in Milton Keynes. Thames Valley police has in the past been forced to put an internal ban on officer movement from north to south to compensate for the outflow into the Met police. That means that the situation is even worse in the north in places such as Milton Keynes.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

It is also particularly bad in the north for other reasons that I shall explain later. Thames Valley police has sought to address the movement of police officers to the Met by slightly increasing pay—from its own resources—to officers in the south. However, officers in the north of the area, such as in Milton Keynes or in north Oxfordshire in my constituency, feel that that is somewhat unfair. It reflects the general pressure that so many officers transfer out.

As the interventions from my hon. Friends show, lower police numbers becomes a self-reinforcing problem. Having proportionately fewer police officers can make officers feel rather alone when on patrol, which can increase the attraction of the Met area, where there are a lot more officers to give support. Moreover, as Maurice Collins, chair of the Thames Valley Police Federation, noted:

"The other reality which concerns me is that the core shifts, which are the bread and butter of policing, used to be driven by officers with four to seven years' service. That is not the case any more. Those core shift officers have now, typically, two-and-a-half to three years' service, and some of them are in probation. Often their sergeant in Thames Valley has only three to four years' service in total. That is not good for Thames Valley; it is not good for our community. We need to do something about it."

He went on to observe:

"There simply are not enough police officers to go around."

That is a fundamental concern for all of us who represent constituencies in the Thames valley. It is not our judgment; it is the judgment of the Police Federation, which represents police officers out there on the beat.

For all of us living in the Thames valley, and for those of us who represent Thames valley constituencies, this is a serious issue. Moreover, if there are not enough police officers to go round, those we have tend to be allocated to larger towns such as Oxford, Reading and Slough, and constituencies such as mine, and those of my hon. Friends who are present, sometimes feel very stretched for police resources.

The loss of officers is further exacerbated by what is known as the Edmund-Davies bubble. In the Thames valley, we have a significant number of officers who will retire in the next few years—139 in 2009-10, and 172 in 2010-11. That means that the Thames Valley police force is getting close to capacity in terms of taking in recruits. The problem is not capacity at the training school, but coping with the large number of newly recruited officers on patrol, having sufficient tutor constables and needing to take people away from front-line policing to support probationers.

The Thames valley has become a training ground for the Metropolitan police. This year, the Met plans to recruit 550 transfers; it actually has a plan to do that. That means that its budget—I hope that the new commissioner will think seriously about the morality of this—works on the basis that it will be able to recruit more than 500 trained police officers from other forces. The Met is therefore relying on other police forces to train and provide it with 550 officers this year alone, many of whom are specialist officers. That is unfair and unsustainable, and it is likely to get worse as we approach the 2012 Olympics and the expansion of Heathrow. We are talking about a police force that is not as experienced as it could be if it had not lost experienced officers.

Not only are we losing experience, but the Thames Valley force is incurring training costs, which will be reflected in the grant funding formula. The force has calculated that the cost of training is £55,000 for a normal constable, rising to £77,000 for a firearms officer. Therefore, if only 20 officers transfer, even at a cost of £55,000 each to train, that is £1 million. Our concern is that local people in the areas around London—our council tax payers—are paying to train their local police while the benefit is being felt in London.

A south-east allowance was introduced a few years ago, but it has remained frozen, whereas the Metropolitan police's London weighting allowance has continued to rise, so the pay gap has become wider. The Thames Valley police force has done what it can within its resources. It is now using 3 per cent. of its pay budget, which is a considerable amount of money for the force, to try to give officers in the south of its area, who are more likely to find it easier to work in London, a bit more money, but that is a stretch on its budget. As my hon. Friend Mr. Lancaster has shown, it also creates tension within Thames Valley police. The force has helped more than 700 of its officers on to housing schemes, so 15 per cent. of its officers are being helped in that way.

The force is doing what it can, within its resources, to assist retention, but that still leaves the main issue: the difference between pay and conditions in Thames Valley police and in the Metropolitan police, and the free travel afforded to officers in the Met. As the local Police Federation representation has made clear:

"For that reason, for the health and wealth of the Thames Valley and its community, the Thames Valley Federation think it is the right thing to do to support the Chief Constable, to break away from the national agreement".

The Home Affairs Committee, of which Martin Salter is a member, reached a unanimous conclusion in last year's report on 21st-century policing. It made two relevant recommendations: differential pay between the Metropolitan police and surrounding forces should be reduced, and the Metropolitan Police Service should negotiate a protocol with surrounding forces on the recruitment of staff. I note that although the Met has made noises about such a protocol, nothing has really happened.

My submission to the Minister is that the south-east allowance should be increased substantially to recognise the cost of living in areas such as Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, including in towns such as Banbury and Bicester in my constituency, because the current situation is simply unfair. He will doubtless jump up and ask how that should be funded, but the question that he should address is how to tell a police officer in Slough that they are worth £6,000 a year less than a police officer 2 or 3 miles down the road in Uxbridge. That is unsustainable.

The Home Secretary has yet to respond to the Select Committee's unanimous report, but the Committee has made two very straightforward recommendations and we hope that that response will be positive.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Before calling Mr. Salter, may I have an indication as to how many Members wish to speak? The winding-up speeches will have to start at about 10.30 am. If my maths is right, that gives hon. Members about six minutes each. If they stick to that, they can all get in.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West 9:46 am, 28th January 2009

I shall do my best to stick to six minutes, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate Tony Baldry on securing the debate. He has set out arguments on which we all agree. I have been ploughing this furrow, which is not such a lonely furrow any more—I welcome the number of Members who are throwing their weight behind the campaign—since 2002, when my hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart and I launched the initial campaign for a south-east allowance. John Bercow in meeting the Minister's predecessor, my right hon. Friend Mr. McNulty—now the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform—to put forward the case for substantial increases in the south-east allowance. We also floated the interesting notion of transfer fees. How is it that the Met police can use not only the Thames Valley force but the five other forces surrounding London as a recruitment pool and training ground, while the council tax payers in our constituencies are in effect subsidising the training of Met police? That has to be wrong.

We are not talking about raw numbers; there have been 417 more police officers since 1996—the Thames Valley force has never had so many officers. The issue for all of us, in all our constituencies, is not the number of officers, but the number of experienced and fully trained officers. Let us be clear: experienced coppers catch more crooks.

In Reading, in 2003, we held a conference on regional pay. The then chief constable of the Thames Valley police, Peter Neyroud, provided us with some pretty shocking figures. If we had carried on losing experienced officers to the Metropolitan police and elsewhere at the rates that we were losing them in 2001, 2002 and 2003—about 90 officers a year—there was a realistic prospect that within four or five years the streets of my constituency, and of the Thames valley as a whole, would have had only a minority of experienced officers. By that, I mean that there would have been a minority of non-probationer officers patrolling our streets, which would have been simply unacceptable.

Ironically, what was said at the regional pay conference—at which the guest speaker was the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend Mr. Smith—prefigured what appeared in the Home Affairs Committee report, which I was proud to help produce. The report's recommendations could not have been starker, and we need to press the Minister for an early response from the Home Secretary on the issue. The south-east allowance should be increased substantially, and the Metropolitan police should be forced to adopt a protocol and a neighbourly way of working.

It cannot be right for the Metropolitan police to offer bounties to attract a member of Thames Valley police or one of the surrounding London forces to apply for a job in the Metropolitan police. I understand that the bounty is reported to be between £250 and £400. We have heard stories of the Metropolitan police putting on coaches for recruitment fairs in our constituencies. That cannot be right. It is particularly galling for my hon. Friend the Member for Slough to hear stories from police officers in her community who walk past bus shelters advertising to attract police officers away from her streets and communities. That is an aggressive and entirely deliberate recruitment strategy—it is not an accident of history or geography—and it has to stop.

In February 2008, I put together a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament to see the Home Secretary. She is fully aware of the issue and has tried to raise it with the byzantine machinery of the Police Negotiating Board. The issue stalled because of the problems with police pay. Those have now been resolved and I understand that the machinery is once again grinding, but exceedingly slowly. It is time that we, as politicians, gave that machinery a kick and made the wheels move a little faster.

Because this is a general debate on Thames Valley police, as well as touching on the recruitment issue, I pay tribute to three exceptional police officers with whom I have had the privilege of working during my 25 years in public life, particularly during the 11 years I have spent in Parliament. The first person is Dave Murray, who is the finest area commander I have ever worked with. He was a Reading area commander for many years—a copper's copper—and did a huge amount to re-establish the reputation of police in my community. He is still sorely missed both by officers and the community.

I have worked with two exceptional chief constables. Our current one—Sara Thornton—is quite exceptional and inspirational. As an aside, I congratulate her on overturning one of the more stupid decisions of her underlings, which was to try to refuse to police the Reading versus Celtic testimonial match scheduled for May this year. Apparently, we were going to be engulfed in a tidal wave of sectarian violence for some reason—perhaps we should have a debate on the role of special branch and the quality of the intelligence it puts forward; but seriously, Sara Thornton has been a magnificent and inspirational leader of Thames Valley police.

Lastly, I pay tribute to Peter Neyroud, who heads up the National Police Improvement Agency. He was an inspirational leader and recognised the need to concentrate resources—although my colleagues from more rural constituencies might take issue with that—on where the crime was rather than just where the people live. It is a simple fact that although one can make a case for spreading police officers around the Thames valley like jam, if young people from Newbury or Wantage are spending a Friday or Saturday night out in Reading or Oxford, police officers need to go where the crimes and problems might arise.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to what I think will be a common rallying call in this debate. I do not want to organise any more delegations to see Ministers about the issue. I do not want to sign any more early-day motions. I do not want to organise any more conferences; in fact, I do not want to make any more speeches on the issue, which is why I shall now sit down, but nor do I want a nasty glimpse of the future that shows my community and the communities of my colleagues in the Chamber policed by raw recruits. That is not policing for the 21st century.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 9:53 am, 28th January 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tony Baldry on securing the debate and on his kind words.

To follow what Martin Salter said, and in case any hon. Members think that all the young people in my constituency travel to Oxford to kick off on a Saturday night, I assure him that the young people of Wantage, Didcot, Wallingford and Farringdon are extremely well behaved. In fact, I was going to begin by saying that I am lucky enough to represent one of the safest areas in the country. Indeed, some police officers have described it to me as a boring area to police—long may it remain so. However, like any Member of Parliament, I occasionally criticise Thames Valley police. There are one or two issues, and there has been the occasional wrongful arrest. There is the legendary case of an 85-year-old pensioner who was arrested for chopping down a tree in his garden, which is now known as the willow tree case and has a 2 ft thick file. I am also trying to deal with a small amount of antisocial behaviour at Smith's Wharf, Wantage.

I think that all hon. Members and most policemen would agree that there is a growing management culture in the police. In fact, at the Home Affairs Committee hearing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury referred, that was mentioned by the chairman of the Police Federation. He said:

"Years ago, when I was making arrests, it was an instant decision, but these days it is a long process to get there."

That is a general issue that affects police forces across the country.

The telephone service should be more local—all my constituents hate the 0845 number—and we should have more special constables. I join the hon. Member for Reading, West in paying tribute to our chief constable, Sara Thornton, and to our new local area commander in the Vale of White Horse, Andy Boyd. On first meeting, he certainly comes across as being a copper's copper. Both of them have put more police on patrol at the right time on Friday and Saturday nights and they are going around visiting victims of crime.

Most of what I would describe in the vernacular as the slam-dunk arguments in favour of Thames Valley police's case have been made by the two hon. Members who spoke before me. However, some other points may add weight to the case. First, all hon. Members in the Chamber represent areas that will experience huge housing growth once the credit crunch is over. Hundreds of thousands of houses are planned for our area and that will lead to a need for more police officers for Thames Valley. If all the housing that is planned goes ahead, Thames Valley police estimates that it will need at least 1,200 more officers and staff. That is something that must be included in the mix.

The arguments about the different wages for Metropolitan police officers and Thames Valley officers have been made clearly. One could travel a few hundred yards and earn £4,500 more for doing the same job. The Select Committee made a clear recommendation to increase the south-east allowance from £2,000 to £3,000, and noted that the allowance has not increased since its introduction—even with the rate of inflation. That is why there is such a disparity. At present, Thames Valley police would need another 436 police officers, 349 special constables, and 22 police community support officers to reach the shire average, not just the national average. If it were to reach the shire average in terms of its budget, it would need to receive additional revenue of almost £4.5 million. Those are significant sums.

The core point that was so ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is that the Thames valley is becoming a training area for the Metropolitan Police Service. We are very low down the list in terms of the number of experienced officers patrolling our streets, whether in Reading, Milton Keynes or Wantage. That is not an aspersion; it is simply an objective statement of fact, which means, for example, that there will tend to be officers with only two to three years' experience on the core and most important shifts of the police week in Thames valley when, ideally, a police force wants at least one officer of four to seven years' experience patrolling the streets. A clear protocol is needed between the Metropolitan Police Service and the neighbouring constabularies.

I understand that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary got involved earlier this year or at the end of last year and reduced the demand of the Metropolitan Police Service, which has had an overt demand for something like 500 to 600 experienced trained police officers whom it wants to recruit from other police forces. I understand that the total has been reduced to 400.

There are two clear solutions, to which I hope the Minister will respond. One is to increase the south-east allowance to reduce the differentials between the Metropolitan Police Service and neighbouring constabularies. The second solution is to bring the MPS to the table and force it to sign up to a meaningful protocol that will ensure that Thames Valley police and other constabularies can keep experienced officers and maintain an important balanced ecology in their force.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East 9:59 am, 28th January 2009

I, too, congratulate Tony Baldry on securing the debate, and I welcome his having been out on the streets in Cowley. Whether that was responsible for the fall in crime locally, I do not know, but he is very welcome, and I know that he learned many useful lessons from the experience.

The debate is a welcome opportunity, on a cross-party basis, as we have seen, to raise the important issues of retention and the need for a fair deal for police in the Thames valley, especially in relation to the Metropolitan police. It is, as others have noted, a good opportunity to place on record our appreciation, and that of our constituents, of the job that the police are doing in our area. I go out on the doorstep a lot in my constituency, calling round with local councillors, and we pick up a fair few issues that need taking up with the police. I also regularly survey constituents on whether they feel that community policing is making their neighbourhood safer, and satisfaction with policing and police responsiveness when cases are raised have been going up for a while—they were doing so even before the hon. Gentleman went out with our officers. I think that is because there are more police officers and the police are more visible—with neighbourhood policing and community support officers.

At the end of the day, policing, like justice, has to be not only done but seen to be done, and progress is being made. That is not to say that crime is not still too high, because of course it is—even one crime is one too many—but people can see the progress that is being made. I certainly get fewer complaints about lack of police response than I did a few years ago. One conclusion I draw is that community policing, including the valuable contribution of community support officers, is a success. It is valued by the public and puts the police more closely in touch with them at a time when the nature of specialist operations and the fight against highly organised crime and terrorism inevitably distances some police functions from the citizens they serve.

On the question of retention and recruitment by the Met, I wholly agree with the points made by the hon. Members for Banbury and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and my hon. Friend Martin Salter. As my hon. Friend said, several of us put those points to the Home Secretary last year in a meeting that he organised with her. I note from the police briefing for this debate that following those meetings and our representations, and the intervention of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, to which the hon. Member for Wantage referred, the Met has been forced to reduce its target for recruiting experienced officers from other forces from between 500 and 600 to 400. One must ask what the justification is for drawing as many as 400 experienced officers from neighbouring forces. What evidence does my hon. Friend the Minister have as to whether the commitment is being kept? Does he have statistics on what is happening month by month or quarter by quarter? Incidentally, I was very grateful to my hon. Friend for coming to my constituency to see the local neighbourhood policing strategy for himself. He went on to visit Banbury on that occasion too, so it is good to know that he is out and about, keeping in touch with what is happening on the ground.

We are all familiar with the factors that cause officers from the Thames Valley force, and others within striking distance of London, to go to the Met: the aggressive recruitment policy, the pay differential of £4,500 and free travel within a range of 70 miles. I am sure that we want to send a united message to the Minister and, through him, to the Home Secretary that the unfairness in the differential must be tackled without further delay.

I single out in particular the nonsense whereby the London allowance increases with inflation while the south-east allowance does not, meaning that the gap gets wider all the time. The Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended a substantial increase in the south-east allowance and a protocol with the Met to limit transfers, so it would be very helpful if the Minister could tell us when the Home Secretary will respond to that report, and even better if he could at least hint that the response will be positive. The police do a very good job of serving our area, and they must be helped to keep to a minimum the wasteful and wholly avoidable drift of officers to the Met, and to tackle the problem sooner rather than later.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 10:05 am, 28th January 2009

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) for their respective roles in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury comprehensively set out the background to the issue, so I shall spend a few moments on two problems: first, rural policing; and secondly, the impact of the funding formula grant.

The Thames valley policing area is varied, but we should not forget that large parts of it include rural constituencies, such as mine. From the point of view of officers, rural policing is not the sexiest part of the job. The fleshpots of Newbury, Wantage, Oxford and Reading are more attractive in terms of the variety of crime that the police handle, but rural policing is a vital and visible part of policing the whole area. It has often been seen, from a force perspective, as the poor relation of other policing—certainly when compared with policing in the Met. However, that, too, must be addressed, because one characteristic of rural policing is the need for a police officer's local knowledge, owing to the distances involved and the isolation of villages and individual houses, and the need, therefore, to build strong working relationships with local individuals, many of whom have had to establish their own intelligence networks—to report crimes and potential crimes to each other—that go far beyond the neighbourhood watch scheme.

Thames Valley police has made progress on targeting rural crime, and I pay tribute to its work. It would be a great shame, however, if that were to be undermined as a result of the retention problem. Let me hint at the scale of rural crime. There are major issues with theft, often of highly valuable machinery, but there is also a problem with the theft of animals, particularly of working dogs, for which there is quite a black market. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all, however, is the increase in mindless destruction by people who are often armed. They drive into fields in vans or cars with bull bumpers, run down deer or sheep and, without any consideration whatever, leave them maimed, to die in agony. The activity is not restricted to, or at the heart of, my constituency, but the intelligence network on such activities is based there. It requires co-ordination throughout the Thames valley, however, because the gangs that carry out those activities come from many parts of the area.

The point has already been made that Thames Valley police has the highest percentage of new officers, and the implication for rural policing is that the knowledge base, and the relationships to which I referred, are weakest there. Thames Valley police has the eighth lowest proportion of police officers per 100,000 of the population, and that, coupled with the long distances in, and rural nature of, the area leads to isolation and a loss of teamwork there. That also has an influence on retention.

I join my hon. Friends in calling for a review of the south-east allowance and the London allowance, because there can be no justification for such a disparity, particularly given the additional costs that Thames Valley police has to put up with. That is only part of the solution, however, because pressures also come from the funding formula, which does not pick up on location or other costs. My hon. Friend mentioned the costs of training, and Thames Valley police authority is not a floor authority, so, despite the additional costs, its subsidy of floor authorities is predicted to be £3.8 million in 2010-11. It may escalate, but it has been in the range of £3 million to £4 million. I understand the nature of floor regimes, which try to provide some stability across the piece, but in reviewing the funding formula, which I believe the Minister is committed to, we need to consider whether removing £3.8 million annually from a police force such as Thames Valley police is sustainable. We must also consider whether it is wise for the floor authorities to be increasingly dependent on that redistributed formula grant, in terms of targeting the formula at where the problem is.

In reviewing the formula, I should like to put down a marker and say that there are three points that we would like to keep a close eye on. I will put it no stronger than that in case it is taken as a spending commitment. We would have serious considerations about three things: first, the idea, which has been advanced frequently, of rolling the rural policing grant into the general grant and allocating that according to the formula; secondly, rolling the London and south-east allowances into the general grant; and thirdly, the abolition of the area cost adjustment. If those three things are on the Minister's agenda, he can expect particular scrutiny from the Opposition.

I concur with the remarks made by hon. Members from all parties. This is a major policing area and it is under a lot of stress, but it has a huge variety of situations to offer policemen and policewomen coming into the service in terms of the balance between rural, urban and suburban. This debate has highlighted the major problems that it faces.

Photo of Richard Benyon Richard Benyon Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:11 am, 28th January 2009

I, too, welcome the chance to debate this matter and I congratulate my hon. Friend Tony Baldry on securing it. I also thank my hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey for his contribution.

I should like to comment on a point made by Martin Salter and develop a theme that has been mentioned. Many of his constituents come to Newbury to drink in the evening because it is safer. This creates a policing issue, because in a relatively low crime area, suddenly there can be a requirement for more police officers. We should try to have an even mix.

I was concerned when the basic command unit area went from being just my local authority area to include Reading and Wokingham, because I naturally thought that there would be a migration of police officers from my area to a higher crime area, such as Reading. I keep a close tab on that. However, at times I detect that there is, as my hon. Friend John Howell says, great difficulty maintaining the police numbers required for when crimes do happen in rural areas with a low crime rate.

We should all congratulate the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner on two things: first, on being successful in getting appointed to the important job of running the Metropolitan Police Service and, secondly, on achieving a degree of unanimity of view between the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, which is an achievement in itself. I hope that we, as Thames Valley Members of Parliament, will take this opportunity to write to him, congratulating him on his appointment. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury talked about the morality of the issue—we can use words like morality or responsibility—and the Metropolitan police must be responsible in its approach to recruitment. The hon. Gentleman mentioned posters in Slough station, for example. That is not a responsible act and it should not be continued.

I hope that the Minister will encourage a revisit of the meeting that took place last June with Martin Tiplady, the director of resources for the Metropolitan Police Service, which achieved something—although it seems more like warm words than actual achievement. The Met agreed that it would monitor transfers and run recruitment campaigns in conjunction with south-east forces and would seek to stage transfers where the negative impact of transferees is proving critical to service delivery. That all sounds nice, but the Metropolitan Police Service still intends to recruit some 400—possibly more—experienced police officers whose training will have been paid for by the council tax payers of areas such as the Thames valley.

We should not run away from the fact that it is not just the Met that is sucking police officers away and that it is a situation that we cannot entirely control. I went on patrol in Newbury some years ago with a young police officer whose girlfriend was a police officer in Reading. They lived in a two-bedroomed flat in Reading. He was moving to Lancashire with her and they were going to sell their two-bedroomed flat in Reading and buy a four-bedroomed detached house in Lancashire. Their quality of life was going to be massively improved. The Thames Valley council tax payers had paid for his and her training, but the people of Lancashire were going to have the benefit of it.

It is undoubtedly true that the weighting and the travel allowance covering places 70 miles from the centre of London are causing the problem. Many hon. Members have Metropolitan police officers in their constituency. I seem to meet them every time I go canvassing, although I do not know whether that is just luck or whether an enormous number of them live in west Berkshire. The truth is that the Thames Valley police force has been nicknamed the Met's training force for too long.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will accept the two key recommendations in the Home Affairs Committee report. First, the differential in pay should be reduced. That could be achieved in many ways without it sounding like a spending commitment. Secondly, there should be a clear protocol agreed between the two authorities that will ensure that this problem will cease to exist in years to come.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:16 am, 28th January 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Tony Baldry on securing this important debate. I am conscious that, coming last in the pecking order of speaking, I may repeat things that other colleagues have already said. But this is such an important debate that a little repetition will not hurt on this occasion.

I am keenly interested in the work of Thames Valley police and I support the great and good work that it does across my constituency. Since becoming an MP, like other hon. Members, I have spent several nights with my local force patrolling my constituency. I have patrolled around east Reading on my mountain bike and in a van around Reading town centre, which attracts a large number of people, particularly at weekends. I have seen first hand the problems that the police experience. Recently, in December, I was out with a vehicle safety check unit, pulling over and stopping cars that are unfit to be on the roads. So I have seen at first hand the important work that police officers do and I have been amazed by the professionalism that they show and by their dedication to their work.

We have a good team of police officers in Reading. I should like to single out one in particular, Steve Kirk, who has been doing an excellent job for my constituents across Reading, East. I also join hon. Members in paying tribute to Dave Murray, who retired last year from the Thames Valley force. He was an excellent, dedicated police officer and he did an enormous amount for Reading.

I should like briefly to cover three issues to do with Thames Valley police: detection, officer retention and red tape and bureaucracy. On detection rates, during the Safer Reading campaign last year the chief inspector announced that offences in Reading had been rising since the previous March and that his force needed to improve. The detection rate of only 10 per cent. of crimes, such as burglary, robbery and theft from vehicles, is disappointing to say the least. These are the crimes that our communities come into contact with the most—almost daily—so it seems that people have cause for concern. Being concerned, I asked several questions about the force's detection rates and I am interested in the responses that I have received.

According to a parliamentary written answer from the Home Office, in 2007-08 the Thames Valley detection rate for theft was 16 per cent. and just 9 per cent. for burglary. Even with the much discussed changes in measurement made by the Home Office over recent years, a detection rate of below 10 per cent. is surely a cause for great concern. Similarly, the results to a question asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Bone have exposed the below-par performance by Thames Valley when comparing its detection rates against other forces. Out of 43 forces in England and Wales, Thames Valley is ranked 36—only three forces have a worse detection rate. That is cause for concern and a very disappointing result for our local police force. It is clear that the force needs to take steps to improve its detection rates if it is to reassure people that it is improving its service to the community.

That leads me to my next point. Officer retention, as hon. Members have said, continues to be a problem in the Thames Valley area, despite the authority investing considerable resources in housing and related schemes. One can sympathise about the low detection rates when one realises how many excellent experienced officers the force is losing to the Met because of its wages and free travel.

Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee last year, Sara Thornton, the chief constable of Thames Valley police, admitted that it is a very young force. That has been commented on today. According to the chairman of a local branch of the Police Federation, the average length of service in Thames Valley police is just two and a half years. Considering the resources involved and the fact that it costs nearly £50,000 to train just one police constable, Thames Valley police are continuing to invest valuable money in training officers in the knowledge that that will be wasted because they will go to the Met. Clearly, losing officers at that rate will not benefit local communities in the Thames valley and it is a financial drain on resources. With just three years until the Olympic games, the demand for specialist officers will undoubtedly increase, exacerbating the problem.

I understand that Thames Valley police are continuing their dialogue with the Met, but there has yet to be a satisfactory conclusion to those discussions. One major concern is that, as many hon. Members have said, the Met is able to pay much more to equivalent ranks as a result of the London allowance and the free travel zone around the capital. One way to alleviate the problem—a way that is advocated by Thames Valley police and the Select Committee—would be to increase the south-east allowance to make it feasible for officers to live in the south-east, in places such as Reading. However, I do not know whether that solution is practical or even possible in the current economic climate. I doubt that the issue is worth pursuing in the short term.

Following the evidence session in Reading, in my constituency, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that the Met should agree with surrounding forces to limit transfers, and I believe that that is the right course of action. I understand that the need for specialist officers is somewhat greater in London, but it does not follow that that should be to the detriment of surrounding forces, such as our own. We are all vulnerable to the forces of extremist behaviour and terrorism, and Thames Valley police should be able to build and maintain a mature force that is fit to cope with the challenges that it faces. I believe that, by pursuing that course, Thames Valley MPs could make a real difference and persuade the Home Office to do what has been recommended.

There has been an increase in the number of police officers since 1997, but the impact of that increase has been curtailed by the Government's self-imposed bureaucracy, meaning that those officers spend a mere 14 per cent. of their time on patrol. That negates the increase in numbers. Along with my constituents, I believe that police officers should spend more time on the beat, conducting high-visibility patrolling and providing reassurance. Police forces should be free to operate without the high levels of top-down interference to which they are subject from the Home Office.

I welcome the willingness of the Thames Valley force to embrace community policing by publishing local crime statistics and making crime maps available online. I am also pleased by the improvements that neighbourhood policing has brought about in my constituency of Reading, East, although there is still much work to be done. That was proved by the recent review of policing conducted by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, in which only 51 per cent. of respondents thought that the police were dealing with locally important issues. There is clearly a need to improve the public's sense of connection with and confidence in the police. A great deal remains to be done in that respect. Community policing should be local; it should be what it says on the tin. Forces should be able to operate without Government restriction and they should be fully accountable to the communities in which they operate.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London) 10:24 am, 28th January 2009

I congratulate Tony Baldry on introducing the debate and on his commendable honesty. He confessed that he could not claim the credit for securing the debate, as there was a co-ordinated attempt to secure it. He is obviously not the sort of man who would say that he had saved the world unless he had.

I can confirm what other hon. Members have said, although I start by congratulating their local chief constable, Sara Thornton, on the work that she has done. It is clear that the results from Thames Valley's area are good in terms of crime in the region falling, fewer victims of crime, response rates to emergency and non-emergency calls, and the number of offenders being brought to justice. I understand that the target in that respect was exceeded by 1,000, although with that particular target one has to add a word of caution about targets perhaps distorting priorities in terms of quick wins. However, the picture is very positive on fighting crime.

It is clear from the debate that officer retention is an issue. All hon. Members have spoken about that and I commend them for highlighting the concerns about the lack of experienced officers, or at least a smaller percentage of experienced officers relative to other forces. It is not as though there are not crime issues in the Thames valley. All hon. Members will have received the briefing pack on the issue and seen the article that refers to a problem in Milton Keynes. The reporter was taken around by officers and shown a bundle of guns that had been confiscated from a member of the public in Milton Keynes just a couple of days earlier, including five handguns and three rifles, so clearly there are significant policing issues in the region that require officers with significant experience to tackle them effectively.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman saw the excellent documentary that was on last night, but it featured a Thames Valley police detective who co-ordinated the work of four constabularies to put the notorious Johnson gang in prison after they had smashed and grabbed numerous cash machines as well as raided many country houses. That is an example of the fine and experienced policing that we want to hold on to in the Thames valley.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

I agree entirely with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. Experienced officers are needed to crack organised crime in the way that he describes. Many hon. Members referred to what can be characterised as a brain drain of experienced officers from Thames Valley and other forces surrounding the Met area. In the Thames valley, the exodus in the last year has been the largest for six years, with a significant number of specialist officers leaving the force as well.

Many hon. Members referred to the pay differential of £5,000 and to the free travel on offer with the Met. I do not want to quibble too much about the free travel. Clearly, there will be officers who have to travel a short distance to their place of work. The argument about people having free travel when they were perhaps paying much less for travel previously is perhaps not so strong in cases such as that, but I do not quibble with the basic principle, which is that if officers work in the Metropolitan police, they are substantially better paid, and for some there will be the attraction of free travel to their place of work.

Hon. Members referred to the forces around London being a recruitment pool for the Metropolitan police with regard to the expansion of Heathrow due to the new terminal and the London Olympics. The Oxfordshire branch of the Police Federation has expressed concern that officers will be poached over the next four years. I have some specific questions for the Minister. Does he believe that that is a realistic concern in the short term? When the Olympics take place, there will clearly be strong demand for additional officers to supplement the police presence, probably from all over the country. What will be the police profile? How many additional officers will be required to police the Olympics from now on? There will be a slow build up to the Olympics and a need for specialist officers. At what point will that growth in numbers occur?

A number of Members referred to training costs, which are significant. Indeed, additional training costs for the Thames Valley force since 2002-03 are £10 million, partly because specialist officers are being poached or are moving to work for the Met. Additional training costs will clearly be incurred to train officers in the use of the Taser. I seek clarification. I believe that the Government will pay for the Tasers, but that forces will be required to pay to train officers in their use. I have another specific question for the Minister: what does he expect the average cost of training an officer to be? That cost will clearly have an impact not only for the Thames Valley force, but for many others.

I hope that the Minister can answer some specific questions on what has happened since the meeting between the south-east police forces and the Home Secretary in January 2008. Other Members have already referred to what was promised.

The Metropolitan Police Service was to monitor transfers in from other forces and provide advanced warning to them every month. Will the Minister confirm that that has happened each month since that meeting? The Metropolitan Police Service was to run recruitment campaigns in conjunction with south-east forces. Will he confirm how many such joint recruitment campaigns have taken place? Finally, the Metropolitan Police Service was to work with forces by staging transfers when, for instance, the negative impact in relation to transferees was proving critical to service delivery. Will he confirm how many cases there have been in which a transfer has been delayed due to critical risk to service delivery?

I am sure that the House will want to know that that meeting resulted in some concrete outcomes. If the Minister cannot answer my questions today, I hope that he will write to Members to specify exactly what has happened.

An idea that has not been put forward in relation to training is one that other industries have sought to implement. That was certainly the case when I was working in the IT industry 20 or more years ago. The big firms were keen to set up an agreement so that if one firm had a consistent record of poaching staff from other firms it would be fined an amount equivalent to the cost of training the employee. As a result, there was no incentive for firms not to train and poach staff from others.

Have the Government put that idea to the Metropolitan Police Service or discussed it with police forces? It might be a way forward. The fact that the Met does not have to pay the training costs is clearly one reason why it can offer more money to its officers—it is saving the training costs. If some sort of fine system was in place, there would be no such incentive. As a result, one might be able to reduce the brain drain, if not completely cut it.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

We have a healthy cross-party consensus today. As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that his local Lib Dems trashed the Select Committee's proposals—the entire notion of the south-east allowance and possibly of some recompense. Will he put on record Liberal Democrat Front-Bench support for taking that approach, rather than for the political pygmies who inhabit life in Reading?

C

Martin Salter is lying again. Liberal Democrats in Reading have been campaigning for many years for proper action to tackle the major problems of police recruitment and retention in this debate. We were rightly critical of Salter's cynical attempt to turn the...

Submitted by Cllr Gareth Epps Continue reading (and 1 more annotation)

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

The hon. Gentleman is much more familiar with political pygmies in Reading than I am. Indeed, I am sure he has some in his party.

I am happy to put forward the idea of reducing the brain drain by putting financial incentives in place for forces not to poach officers from other forces. As for the south-east allowance, I would be happy to take the subject up with my party's shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend Dr. Cable, and seek his authority to push the idea forward.

I am sorry to say that all hon. Members who have spoken so far have entered a caveat for everything they have said, saying, "It is not a spending commitment." In practice, however, unless they can identify the funding, there may still be a need for a spending commitment.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

It should be made clear that neither my hon. Friend Martin Salter nor I have prefaced our demands with that statement. The hon. Gentleman should be correct in what he says.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

It is always tough for someone who does not represent the area under discussion to be across all the issues, but the fact remains that Thames Valley policy authority has provision in its budget to pay for the south-east allowance uplift that we are all calling for. That is why the hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong, as is Mr. Wilson, to say that that is not an option worth pursuing at this time. The money is already in the budget. Is Tom Brake aware of that?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that fact. It sounds familiar, given the arguments that have taken place over police pay. Nevertheless, I am happy to investigate and if necessary talk to the outstanding and fine Liberal Democrat activists in his area to see what approach they have adopted.

I mention one name that we have not yet heard in the debate—that of Boris Johnson. It cannot have escaped the attention of those Conservative Members who have spoken that the Mayor has a significant role in relation to the Metropolitan Police Service. I wonder whether a co-ordinated effort should be made to talk to the Mayor about his influence over how the Met operates. They may want to consider that. On that topic, I have a specific question for the Minister. Will he outline precisely where the Mayor's responsibilities lie in relation to the Met and who could best address the issues that have been identified?

I do not want to take up too much time, but I wish to question the use of 0845 non-emergency numbers. They are used by Thames Valley police. I hope that the House will agree that if people want to contact the police or other organisations, they should not have to pay a premium, but that clearly happens if they have to call an 0845 number from a non-BT phone.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

It might help all hon. Members to know that the estimated cost of the south-east allowance is £20 million. On that basis, the estimated cost of the proposal by the Association of Chief Police Officers to give forces the flexibility to increase the allowance by up to an additional £1,000 per officer could be some £6 million a year, spread across the eight forces. As my hon. Friends have said, ACPO is clear that no additional central funding will be required to implement that change. I hope that that factual statement is helpful to the House.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Shadow Minister (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London)

I thank the Minister for putting that on the record. It is indeed a useful clarification.

I hope that the House will agree that people should not have to pay a premium when using an 0845 number to contact the police for information. I have taken up the matter with the Home Office, but it has no plans to limit the use of those numbers. Perhaps the Minister will accept responsibility for pursuing the matter, as it has a significant cost impact on those seeking to report problems to the police, as well as to other organisations such as the NHS.

Clearly, hon. Members have made a strong case for tackling the problem of retention through both addressing how the Met handles this matter and the south-east allowance. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions and provide some clarification to Members.

C

Lib Dems in Reading have been highlighting a range of issues and public concerns around reporting crimes via the 0845 non-emergency number, including the need to share data more effectively with local authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour, lack of feedback etc.
Read more here: http://www.redlandslibdems/crime

Submitted by Cllr Daisy Benson

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 10:40 am, 28th January 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Tony Baldry on securing this debate, which has largely been conducted on a cross-party basis; Her Majesty's Opposition are particularly well represented today. I wish to make two points by way of introduction. First, I hope that the Minister will resist the temptation to talk about national spending cuts and allegations about what the Opposition might be doing on police spending. In reality, as this debate has shown, he needs to conduct a review and consider some sensible rebalancing, so that Thames Valley police authority's problems can be addressed. Secondly—I am sure that we can all agree on this—this is not exclusively a matter of money. If we want more police officers on the streets, we must look again and ruthlessly at one question: why is it that only one hour in five of patrol officers' time is spent on patrol? Many interventions can be made to reduce bureaucracy and process to get more police officers on the beat and to improve visibility. This is not exclusively a numbers game, although numbers are terribly important.

This debate is important in the Thames valley and elsewhere. My hon. Friend Mr. Wilson pointed out that detection rates are not as good as they should be. That comes against a backdrop, in the past year, of a 4 per cent. national increase in burglary, 16 per cent. in fraud and forgery and nearly 20 per cent. in street robberies committed at knife point. As a Cabinet Office study last August made clear, with the recession biting, we would expect acquisitive crime to rise. That would certainly be true in the Thames valley. We need more police to deal with that.

Early in the debate, we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and for Banbury about the ban on movements within Thames Valley police authority. We also heard about the clear incentive for some officers to transfer to the Metropolitan Police Authority—because of the pensionable London weighting allowance, the London housing allowance, free travel passes and so on. In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Chief Constable Sara Thornton pointed out that more than 240 officers had transferred to the Met in the past five years. I wish to raise an important technical point with the Minister that I hope that he will bear in mind when he considers this matter again: that conflicts with numbers that I have received from the Met's personnel department, which puts the figure at more than 330 transfers.

We need some clarity. In April of last year, I asked the Minister's predecessor, Mr. McNulty, about those numbers. He replied:

"The numbers of officers who transfer between specific police forces cannot be derived from the centrally collected data."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 25 April 2008; Vol. 474, c. 2341WH.]

We need a better understanding of the scale of the problem. Obviously, we do not know the quantum, but Thames Valley has a huge problem.

My hon. Friend Mr. Vaizey, in a typically insightful point, drew our attention to the work force mix, and the levels of experience in certain ranks being depleted as a result of these transfers. Figures published by the Home Office in July 2008 break down, by rank, the number of officers entering and leaving the Thames Valley police authority. They show that in the last year for which figures are available, among the leavers were four chief superintendents, six superintendents, four chief inspectors and 11 inspectors. None of the new joiners to the force were above the rank of sergeant. In 2007, in Thames Valley police authority, 41 per cent. of officers had less than five years' experience—the highest percentage in the country.

Thames Valley and their leadership are not just holding out a begging bowl. I know that—I have been briefed by Sara Thornton, who is an excellent chief constable—some housing schemes have been set up to assist more than 500 officers in Thames Valley on to the housing ladder. Also, in the south of Thames Valley, special priority payments are in operation. However, that is not enough. The self-help that Thames Valley's leadership is practising, and the other innovative ideas that we have heard about, in retaining officers, are not sufficient.

As Mr. Smith said—I was going to make this point anyway—the problem is getting worse. There has been a freeze in the allowance over the past five years, whereas the Met gets inflation. The inequality is not static, but will grow over time. Like other hon. Members, I urge the Minister to respond clearly to the recommendation, in the Home Affairs Committee report on policing in the 21st century, that the

"South-East Allowance be substantially increased to make it more feasible for officers living in the South-East to work outside London."

When will he publish a response to that recommendation? Will he undertake a review? I am not saying that he should make a spending commitment; I just want to hear his answer to the Committee's recommendation.

My next question touches on a point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Benyon. The Met has agreed—we have heard some warm words—to recruit in different ways. For example, it has placed advertisements in Scotland and Northern Ireland to reduce the need to poach from forces in the south of England. As my hon. Friend pointed out, however, advertisements are still up in Newbury station. Such activity is clearly undesirable from Thames Valley's point of view.

We need an answer to the suggestion in that excellent report by the Home Affairs Committee that the Metropolitan police agree to a protocol with surrounding areas to seek to limit transfers. Will the Minister tell us what representations he has made to the Metropolitan police to make that protocol a reality? Many Opposition Members have raised that point during this excellent debate.

My final question touches on an excellent point made by my hon. Friend John Howell about the wider police grant settlement and how it will affect Thames Valley police. We do not have the time to go into the arcane and interesting details of ceilings and floors, but it would be extremely useful if the Minister—he is a helpful Minister—could give us some indication of the general police grant settlement. I know that it will be announced quite soon, but could he give us an early indication of how his latest thinking on the operation of ceilings and floors will help Thames Valley—that point is separate from the south-east allowance. On that note of honest inquiry, I hope that he will avoid party politics and give us some interesting answers to our interesting questions.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security) 10:48 am, 28th January 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. On behalf of all of us, I congratulate Sir Paul Stephenson on his appointment as Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I am sure that all of us wish him well in his new role, and I am sure that he will do an excellent job. I wish him well, personally and professionally.

I congratulate the hon. Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing this excellent and interesting debate. I might not have time to make my remarks in full, but I shall attempt to address some of the comments and questions raised by hon. Members. First, however, it would be remiss of me not to mention that Mrs. Gillan apologised to me for having to leave the debate before the end, but said that she would read our remarks afterward. It is worth putting that on the record as well.

I say to the hon. Member for Banbury and other hon. Members that I know that this is a very real issue. I know that the matter has been discussed for a considerable period of time, and that there have been a large number of meetings about it. Although such discussions and negotiations are ongoing on the Police Negotiating Board, I recognise the concerns of the Thames Valley force and other south-east forces about the loss of officers to the Metropolitan Police Service. I understand that this is about not just the number of officers—I will try to refer to that issue later if I have time—but the type and experience of officers and the work force mix. I know that my hon. Friend Martin Salter is particularly concerned about probationers. Others have raised concerns about firearms officers and so on. Therefore, the issue is real. All I can say to reassure hon. Members is that I intend to do all that I can to ensure that we get an early resolution of the matter.

Hon. Members have been kind enough to say that I try to be helpful. There does not seem to be much point in having a debate such as this unless one tries to be helpful. As Mr. Ruffley said, there is a time for party politics and a time for making things happen. I will try to push this matter forward. My hon. Friend made a very pertinent point when he said that we can have Adjournment debates and meetings and we can send letters, but sometimes we have to find a way to resolve the problem. That is not easy because we need to negotiate different positions. Different people take a different point of view. We must find a way to move forward.

I say to the hon. Member for Banbury and other hon. Members that I will use my office—I am not being pompous here—to bring about a resolution to this particular issue.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

I thank the Minister for being so incredibly helpful. Will he confirm that he will continue to pursue the issue of the uplift in the south-east allowance, which is the nub of this debate?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

I categorically reassure my hon. Friend that I will do that.

Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Opposition Whip (Commons)

In an earlier intervention, the Minister seemed to suggest that the money is already in Thames Valley's budget to uplift the south-east allowance. That is news both to me and to some of my colleagues, and it has not been in any of our briefings from the chief constable. Will the Minister explain how Thames Valley police is spending that money, which is apparently already in its budget?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

I was responding to what Tom Brake was saying to his hon. Friends. I said that this was a spending commitment. The Association of Chief Police Officers advised me that there could be an uplift to the south-east allowances without any additional central funding, and that the overall figure for the eight forces amounts to some £6 million.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

Given the confusion, perhaps the Minister could clarify what flexibility individual forces have to increase their allowances. Is the allowance set by the Government or are the individual constabularies able to increase their allowance?

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Crime & Security)

That is subject to the PNB coming to an agreement on how such allowances should be paid. That is the point that I am making. Such matters are negotiated conditions between the PNB's various bodies. The board generally works like an established piece of machinery, but it comprises different points of view. The key point is that it is a negotiating board. Between us all, we need to ensure that we negotiate a settlement that is fair to the Metropolitan Police Service and to the south-east forces. I have tried to put some facts on the table that will help to inform the debate about how we can take the matter forward.

I thank the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds for his remarks about how we conduct debates such as this. I know that the Home Secretary will be meeting the new commissioner very soon to discuss the protocol between the Metropolitan Police Service and the south-east forces. Hon. Members have raised a number of issues—I do not have time to go through all of them—which are a matter for the commissioner and the south-east forces.

The hon. Gentleman and Mr. Benyon referred to the police funding formula. Obviously, such an issue is subject to review. Let me say that there are winners and losers with respect to the way in which the police grant is allocated, and we will discuss the matter next week. Although a number of forces will benefit if we take away the floor—including my own force in Nottinghamshire—a reasonable number will lose significant sums of money. If we are to change the formula, we must find a way of ensuring that we keep stability within the police forces, and that we do not undermine that stability. Fairness with stability has to be a key principle. It may mean that we have to bring about change, but we must consider what we are doing. The matter is subject to review and to large numbers of people making all sorts of points, and we will consider all of them.

I have mentioned the protocol. My right hon. Friend Mr. Smith and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West have talked about the importance of neighbourhood policing. May I say to John Howell that all crime is important? He raised the point about rural crime. It would be easy to make sarcastic remarks about some of his points about animal theft and so on, but such matters are very serious in rural area. He was right to say that there is not a distinction between rural and urban crime. Crime is the enemy for all of us, and we need to address that. He also raised the issue of the funding formula, and he has now heard my remarks.

The hon. Member for Newbury said that we needed not just warm words but real action. As I have said, I will try to ensure that that happens. Mr. Wilson strayed from the debate slightly, and I will resist the temptation to return to the political banter that we had at the start. We are trying to reduce bureaucracy, and the hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken away all of the individual targets and replaced them with the single force-wide confidence target.

May I say to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that a plan is being put together for the Olympics? Additional money will be made available. There have been discussions between the Home Office and Thames Valley police. Earlier this week, the Home Office's director of Olympic safety and security visited the Eton Dorney site to talk to the police about some of the issues.

As for the Mayor, he has no role in relation to the PNB, but the Metropolitan Police Authority is part of the Association of Police Authorities' representation on the PNB.

With regard to Taser training, the roll out of Tasers has been widely welcomed as a good thing. The training costs will be a matter for individual forces. Clearly, the number of Tasers that a force has is not dictated centrally. It is a matter for individual chief constables, with their authorities, to determine what they should have.

In conclusion, this is a very important issue and the debate will help me in trying to take forward all of the matters. I am grateful to Opposition Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East for contributing to the debate. As we have all said, Thames Valley police has been given an additional 417 police officers and increased money. It has seen crime falling and has an excellent chief constable. Although there is the issue of retention, I am sure that we should all want to finish by saying that Thames Valley is an excellent police force, doing an excellent job, and we commend it for the work that it is doing.

R

I interpret Mr Coaker's statement as saying clearly that Police Authorities have a role in determining if TASERs should be issued to non-firearms officers in their force areas.

I have lobbied a member of my local police authority suggesting he ensures the authority fulfills this role.

http://www.rtaylor.co.uk/the-role-of-police-authorities-in-d...

Submitted by Richard Taylor