Police, Fire and Rescue Services: Funding Reductions — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:35 am on 20th February 2019.

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Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes The Minister for Immigration 10:35 am, 20th February 2019

It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate Grahame Morris on securing the debate and giving me what I think is my first opportunity to listen to a debate on police funding. I am conscious that, as the spokesman for the Opposition, Louise Haigh, said, many hon. Members have been in this Chamber and the main Chamber discussing this issue on a number of occasions.

I start, as the hon. Member for Easington did, by paying tribute to our police officers and fire and rescue officers across the country for their tireless work in keeping our communities safe. He mentioned in particular Durham’s police and crime commissioner and chief constable. I was reminded the night before last, when an officer was threatened in Romsey in my constituency—an individual has now been charged with possession of a knife in a public place—that such incidents occur across the country and even in the most unexpected locations. Although I cannot comment further on the incident in my constituency, it reminds us that every day and every night officers face significant threats and dangers. I also cannot add to the comments that hon. Members have made about the “Dispatches” programme on Grenfell. The inquiry is ongoing, and I am conscious that I am not the fire Minister. I am not going to say anything that might in any way affect that inquiry, but it is absolutely right to point out that on that night it was our brave public servants who yet again were rushing towards a dangerous situation, not away from it. They were, as the shadow Minister said, putting their lives on the line, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

I will seek to respond to the comments made by hon. Members in this debate; I think it important to reflect on some of the comments that I have heard and respond to them. Of course, the recent funding settlement represents the biggest rise in police funding since 2010. There is not just more for our local police forces, but more for counter-terrorism and dealing with serious and organised crime.

It is important that the public have trust in the police and that we work as a Government to ensure that the funding is in place to enable the police to carry out their important roles. The ability to raise council tax, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, is taken into account when calculating the amount of Government grant, and the same is true for business rates. Areas that raise low levels of council tax receive higher levels of settlement funding. Reductions in Government funding do not necessarily show the full picture. Council tax has been a significant part of fire funding—on average, 60% of funding for fire and rescue authorities.

We heard interesting comments from—he is now back in his placeJim Shannon, who talked in particular about preventive work and the impact on loneliness. Tracy Brabin is here, and of course her predecessor in the House was Jo Cox. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Lady when I say that we still miss Jo every single day, and perhaps more at the current time than previously. She did an enormous amount of work on loneliness, and I am delighted that we now have a loneliness Minister, who has made much of the issue of loneliness among the elderly, the legacy of Jo Cox and the importance of our continuing to emphasise it.

I am struck by the fact that our fire and rescue services up and down the country often do important preventive work with elderly people who live alone in their own home. The importance of checking smoke alarms was mentioned, and Hampshire fire and rescue service has provided me with—I do not know the technical term for the device; I refer to it as “the prodder”. It is a long stick with a hand on the end of it, so people do not have to stand on a chair to test their smoke alarm, which is a crucial way of avoiding accidents. It might seem a simple, straightforward and slightly odd-looking device, but it serves two purposes—not only is it easier for people to check their smoke alarms, but they are not putting themselves at risk by climbing up to do so.

When my daughter was in year 2 at school, she went on a visit to a fire station in Salisbury—the shadow Minister mentioned Wiltshire fire and rescue service— and she was given a fridge magnet. That might seem a simple thing for a year 2 child, but she is now 20 and that magnet is still on my fridge. Every month I have to write in the date with a specially provided pen that indicates when I last checked my smoke alarm. Such important preventive work continues across the country, and many fire and rescue services continue to do such work. Our fire station in Romsey has an annual “check the safety of your electric blanket day”. Perhaps we are particularly soft southerners who need electric blankets, but they can pose a significant fire risk and it is important that they have an annual health check.

Part of our fire reform programme is about establishing the independent fire inspectorate service, and although only the first 14 service reports are complete, questions have been raised about the extent of the focus on fire prevention, which is part of the inspection process. In a speech in January the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service raised with firefighters the importance of preventive work.

The changing nature of rescues was rightly mentioned by Alison Thewliss. Although traditional fires are fortunately decreasing, rescues of different types are on the increase—for instance, the crucial work done by fire and rescue services on our motorway network, or in more recent years the work with flooding and assisting those who have been flooded out of their homes. As well as saving individuals, those services also do important pumping work.

The changing nature of crime has also had an impact on our police forces. I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen about child sexual exploitation, and sadly we have seen increasing reports of that horrific crime. There been not only an increase in crime, but an increase in the confidence of victims to come forward. These are incredibly complex, difficult and sensitive crimes to investigate; we must ensure that our police can respond whenever such occurrences are reported and that they have the resource and ability to investigate. I am routinely struck by the increase in cyber-crime, which a few short years ago was not even heard of. Criminals are incredibly resourceful and adaptive and they will find opportunities wherever they exist. Our police forces must be equally adaptive and able to take important preventive action.

I am sure that hon. Members will comment on what I say about funding, but the House has approved total funding for policing of up to £14 billion for 2019-20, which is an increase of up to £970 million compared with 2018-19, including the precept pensions funding and national investment. We reviewed the changing and increasingly complex demands on police; the settlement will enable them to meet the financial pressures they face next year, while continuing to recruit and fill capability gaps, such as the shortage of detectives. If all police and crime commissioners use their precept flexibility in full next year, there will be a total increase in police funding of £2 billion between 2015-16 and 2019-20.

We are increasing Government grants to police and crime commissioners by £161 million, with every police and crime commissioner’s grant funding protected in real terms. They are being empowered to raise council tax contributions for local policing by up to £2 a month per household, which could raise up to £509 million. Elected PCCs have made the case for raising local tax from their electorate, and they are accountable for delivering a return on that public investment. That additional funding of up to £970 million will enable the police to manage their additional pension costs of approximately £330 million next year, while continuing to address capability issues. The police need to use that money well, which means every force saving money on procurement and back-office functions so that it can be invested in the frontline. The Home Secretary has been clear: he will prioritise police funding at the spending review.

Turning to the issue of fire funding, fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their work and keep people safe. Fire and rescue authorities will receive about £2.3 billion in 2019-20. Single purpose fire and rescue authorities will receive an increase in core spending power of 2.3% in cash terms in 2019-20 and an overall increase of 0.3% from 2015-16 to 2019-20. We are also providing additional pension funding in 2019-20 to fire and rescue authorities to ensure that their additional pension cost is limited to £10 million. Financial reserves held by single purpose fire and rescue authorities increased by more than 80% to £545 million between 31 March 2011 and 31 March 2018, which is equivalent to 42% of their core spending power. The sector has made efficiencies, but as by the first tranche of inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services indicated, they can do more to work smarter and to reduce costs. It is important that fire services continues to receive the right level of resources, which is why we work closely with the services to build the evidence to develop a clear proposition for the spending review.

Some issues were raised about neighbourhood policing. I want to put on the record how much we value neighbourhood policing and the vital role that officers play in keeping the public safe. That is why we are enabling police and crime commissioners to increase their cash funding next year, and many PCCs have set out their plans in that regard.

On top of protecting 2019-20 general grant funding in real terms for all police forces in England and Wales, the Government have increased funding for counter-terrorism policing and to combat serious and organised crime.

There was mention of the impact of Brexit, which is not only topical but of real concern. The Government have provided additional funding to Kent police for the particular pressures that they might face with Operations Stack and Brock in their area. Rightly, as part of Brexit planning, we look closely at police resourcing and the additional pressures that might be put on the police. In common with every other Minister, I am working hard to ensure that we get a deal—that is the best way forward for the country—but it is important to plan for all eventualities, and the Government are doing that carefully.

In conclusion, the Government support policing and fire and rescue services to do their vital work by providing the resources that they need. I pay extreme tribute to their very hard work.