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Column 1308Recently, two Conservative members of the authority, Councillor Kate Wood and Councillor Norman Williams, met the Home Secretary. They issued a press release, dated 18 November, which said: "We will not know the outcome for next year's funding decision by the Home Secretary"--
even though they had just met the right hon. and learned Gentleman--
"until December. The question of inflation provision will have an important bearing on how the Home Secretary's decision will affect Merseyside. If no allowance is made for inflation, this will equate to a reduction of 170 police officers and 35 civilians."
Those are the figures that I gave earlier, so if the Minister is unwilling to accept my assessment, surely he will listen to members of his party.
Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston): Does my hon. Friend agree that, in future, fewer police officers will be available on Merseyside to perform the most important task of crime prevention? One of the greatest assets of the police is their physical, visible presence. Because of the cuts that have effectively already been made, police officers will be unable to carry out that important role on Merseyside. Does my hon. Friend agree that that task is an important part of the debate?
Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend, with his great experience in the House and of Merseyside, makes an exact, proper point. I agree that the visible presence of the police, not necessarily in great numbers, on the streets and patrolling estates, is a positive deterrent against crime. Their presence also reassures people and we should not underestimate how important that can be. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to those important considerations. It would be improper of me not to try to take into account what we can glean from the bundle of documents produced with the Budget. I am sure that the Minister will quote some of the statistics in those documents.
Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside): Some weeks ago I met the chief constable of Merseyside to discuss the formula, because I had been told by the authority's treasurer that the reduction in the police force's budget, announced by the Home Office, could cause the council tax in Liverpool to be increased greatly. The Home Office has refused to answer my written questions about that. I hope that the Minister will give an adequate response to them when he replies to the debate.
There are only two options. If the full cost of providing an adequate police service on Merseyside is not covered by the formula, or what passes for a standard spending assessment settlement on a modified formula--which, apparently, will be announced tomorrow--there are only two ways of closing the gap. One way is to increase the council tax--but there are capping limits, which will be brought into play--and the other is to reduce services. The consequences of that would be horrendous.
Where do we stand according to the Budget? According to the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, which was kind enough to provide me with briefing on that today, the shortfall can be met only--as my hon. Friend the Member for Riverside said--by a reduction in other vital services already provided by local authorities, which would mean cuts in social services, education and other vital services, as a result of the revenue support grant
Column 1309settlement. If the police budget is protected--I hope that it will be--it will be at the cost of other sectors of local government expenditure, and that would be equally unacceptable.
In any event, it will not be clear until tomorrow exactly where the police stand. In the absence of meaningful consultations, we must, regrettably, assume either that there will be cuts in policing and expenditure on policing or, if they are protected, that there will be cuts elsewhere in local government expenditure, which would be equally unacceptable.
My constituents, and people throughout Merseyside, are rightly outraged at the implications of cuts on spending for the police on Merseyside. It will place an enormous burden on the police authority and might mean reductions in staff. Not since a notorious Bill in the previous Parliament instigated by, I think, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), have I had so much correspondence on one subject as I have had on police funding as it applies to Merseyside.
The problem is that the police have a straightforward job--although it is at times difficult to deliver--of catching criminals and also, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston said, of instituting crime prevention measures where possible, so that those crimes never take place. If that is in any way undermined on Merseyside, the progress that we have made in the past few years--I acknowledge that there has been some progress--will be seriously undermined.
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a further danger? Merseyside police is to be congratulated on its success in apprehending dangerous criminals. There comes a time when criminals have to appear before the Crown court and they need professional escorts. The Merseyside police force is on a knife edge already, before the cuts, in its ability to provide adequate escorts for those dangerous criminals.
Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend makes another good point. The Government's record in holding on to criminals once they have caught them is not of the highest standard already, and if there is any further security risk of that type, it will be unacceptable. In some debates, the signals that we send out to the wider community are often almost as important as the substance of what is under discussion. What signals do we send out if the issue is not resolved? First, criminals will rightly say that there is a green light. They will say, "The Government might talk tough about law and order, but they do not really mean it, and there will be fewer police, so we shall have more freedom to roam, causing difficulty and carrying out our worst."
There could also be a disastrous effect on inward investment. If prospective investors in the region feel that there is inadequate security and that it will be open season on their premises, they may well think twice and move somewhere else. Existing employers in parts of Merseyside, as in other regions, have difficulty with adequate security. If the levels of policing are reduced, they may even consider moving out of Merseyside. That is the problem that confronts us.
Every public opinion survey that is carried out shows and, for that matter, every Member of the House knows--or should know--that law and order is an issue about
Column 1310which people are very worried. Unless the Government can reassure people, especially those on Merseyside, by providing the necessary resources to avoid cuts in police cover, people on Merseyside will be entitled to conclude that the Government are not carrying out their responsibilities, and not only those which they accepted at the general election, but those which any normal Government should fulfil. People will be entitled to tar the Government with an entirely new mantra--soft on crime and bewildered by its causes. 10.19 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) for his kind but unnecessary apology for the short notice given for the debate. I was not aware that he had given us such short notice but I have such excellent staff at the Home Office that they would have been able to provide a response to the hon. Gentleman if he had told us about the debate only yesterday. However, I do not want him to do that for future debates.
My only criticism of the hon. Gentleman relates to his sense of timing. He alluded to tomorrow's business. If he had been content to wait until after tomorrow's announcement of the local government settlement, which, of course, includes details of funding for the free-standing authorities, all would have been clear and, it is to be hoped, his mind set at rest.
The Government's commitment to policing in England and Wales is as strong as ever. That commitment, which has resulted in an extra 16, 000 police officers being employed since 1979, was underscored by yesterday's announcement in the Budget statement that provision for the police service in England and Wales next year will increase by approximately 3 per cent. compared with 1994-95. That is fully sufficient to enable the present number of officers to be maintained across the country if chief officers, in consultation with police authorities, choose to do so.
In addition, central controls on manpower have been abolished, giving police authorities and chief officers much greater flexibility in the way that they determine their spending priorities. Major efficiency improvements are enabling chief officers to make more officers available for front-line duties. We will, of course, have to wait until tomorrow's local government finance statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment before we know the individual allocations of police funding for 1995-96. In the past, the Government's specific grant for policing has met 51 per cent. of whatever has been spent by the police authorities. To give the Government some say over how much police authorities spend, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has had detailed controls over items such as manpower numbers and capital expenditure.
Decisions about the best use of resources should be made by the people on the ground. Therefore the Home Secretary is giving up unnecessarily detailed controls on manpower numbers and on all but the largest capital expenditure. At the same time, to make sure that the income tax payer does not lose control of expenditure on the police, the police specific grant will be cash-limited. After all, there is no reason why the spending decisions of a police authority at one end of the country should be
Column 1311subsidised 100 per cent. by income tax payers who live at the other end and who are not to benefit from the policing services that the extra expenditure is designed to provide. Therefore, in future, local decisions to spend extra money on policing will impact on those local council tax payers who are to benefit from the extra expenditure. Given that central Government funding is to be cash- limited, its distribution to individual forces must be fair. A working group was set up in October 1993 to identify such a system of distribution--a needs-based allocation formula. As the hon. Member for Knowsley, North knows, that is the basis of the standard spending assessments or SSAs, which are already used to distribute funding for other local services such as education and social services.
The working group was chaired by Home Office officials, but it included representatives from local authority associations, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Metropolitan police service. The group issued a report in September which contained exemplifications of how a version of the funding formula might work. The figures in the report were provided only to illustrate the effects of the formula.
An existing consultation programme was launched following the issuing of the allocation formula working group's report. I deny completely that there was not full consultation. There has been full consultation on those exemplifications. We listened carefully to the concerns expressed--
Mr. George Howarth: If there was such full consultation, will the Minister explain why ACPO and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, both of which one would have expected to have a major role in any consultation exercise, deny that there has been any meaningful consultation whatever?
Mr. Maclean: I am sorry, but I am not aware of that. They have never made that clear to me. They have always made it clear to me that they disliked the exemplifications--many of us were unhappy with the initial exemplifications in the formula--but they have never told me that they were unhappy with the level of consultation. I am perfectly content that there has been adequate and full consultation. We have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by police and local authority associations about the size of potential gains and losses implied by that version of the formula and the figures then in circulation.
We have always realised that the size of some of the potential swings in funding produced by the working group's version of the formula were too large. Some of those swings would have jeopardised the need for stability in the policing of communities. So that the formula could take more account of that need for stability, my right hon. and learned Friend decided to include police establishments as an indicator within the formula for 1995- 96. As hon. Members will be aware, police establishments were the basis for previous funding allocations. Including police establishments in the new formula therefore ensures continuity of funding and guarantees the capacity of police authorities to maintain existing levels of policing.
Column 1312But funding, of course, is only half the equation. The other half, spending decisions, are the responsibility of local police authorities. It is the police authorities--not the Government- -which set the budgets for their police forces.
Mr. Loyden: Does the Minister agree that, if a serious attempt is being made to combat crime, it should be on the understanding that the police should be where crime is prevalent? Crime is not distributed equally throughout the country. Some areas need more resources to combat crime. Conservative Members who come from the leafy suburbs do not recognise the problems facing inner cities as a result of crime.
Mr. Maclean: The hon. Gentleman should be careful before assuming that crime occurs only in inner cities and that plush leafy suburbs are exempt from crime or that crime is not a serious problem there. Complaints about crime come from many parts of the countryside and the suburbs. I know from my visits to all the police forces in England and Wales that many areas complain that they are suffering not from their own home-bred criminals but from criminals who come from inner-city areas, and they would like a funding allocation to deal with their imported problem.
Mr. O'Hara: Does the Minister recognise that hardened criminals who realise that there are not rich pickings to be gained from inner cities often travel out to the leafy suburbs for their rich pickings? The crimes that are solved appear on the records of those policing the leafy suburbs, but the leg work in apprehending those criminals is done by the police forces in the inner cities. I do not want anyone to say, "That means that scousers are robbing people blind around the country." There are hardened criminals in all inner cities, and Merseyside police are to be congratulated on knowing who they are and helping other forces to apprehend them.
Mr. Maclean: No one is more in the forefront than me in congratulating Merseyside police on their fantastic success in reducing crime. Their figures are falling dramatically and excellently, along with the vast majority of other forces throughout the country. That is the reason for the largest fall in recorded crime in the past 40 years.
One requires a formula for distributing resources for the police that is based on need. That need is not as simplistic as the hon. Gentleman says. Of course inner cities have their particular problems, but they are not unique in having problems. It is too simplistic to say that if criminals in inner cities are committing crimes in other areas, those other areas are successful in arresting them. I wish that that were always true. In some cases it is, but in others it is not.
Police forces throughout the country complain that someone else is causing a problem for them, and they are right to make that point. We must be careful not to produce broad-brush solutions. We have been striving to find a formula that takes account of problems of inner-city and other forces.
Column 1313the settlement or what budget Merseyside police authority will set, and I cannot speculate on the council tax level. The hon. Gentleman must wait until tomorrow to learn the financial settlement and the police allocations.
Merseyside was well to the fore, together with many others, in raising concerns about the possible impact of the new funding formula. However, whoever was behind the campaign that was mounted within Merseyside sought to scare residents rather than to inform them. I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Knowsley, North received a record number of letters. If millions of those scary leaflets were distributed, I would expect all the hon. Gentleman's constituents to write to him.
Column 1314That misleading leaflet, which was circulated to 600,000 householders, suggested that 500 police officers were to be lost on Merseyside next year because a cut of £13 million was to be imposed. There was never any intention of imposing a £13 million cut on Merseyside. Even the changes proposed in the working group's report, if that formula was accepted--
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.
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