Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Stephen: If the hon. Gentleman believes in local democracy, he will understand that the decision on what to spend on the police is a matter for the police authority and the county councils concerned. It is not for this House.

Mr. Straw: There are words for that which would be unparliamentary, but the hon. Gentleman's constituents will take note of the fact that, this time last year, he supported cuts in the budget of Sussex county council. He did not call for an extra £8 million. Now, when it is too late, he is calling for it. He will be judged by what he said.

Mr. John Greenway: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: I must get on. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

One of the reasons why there is a discrepancy between what the Minister is saying about the settlement and what the Association of Chief Police Officers is saying about it is that part of the famous 4 per cent. that the Minister mentioned will not, and cannot, be used to finance front-line services. The 4 per cent. needs to be set against a gross domestic product deflator of 3.4 per cent. Mr. Hoddinott has spelt out that, because of the new arrangements, police authorities, for the first time, will have to build up their own reserves of 2 per cent. of their budgets. As the hon. Members for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) and for Stafford (Mr. Cash) have pointed out, police authorities also face significant increases in pension contributions, which I understand are to rise this year by 9 per cent. They question whether full account has been taken of that in the formula that the Minister spoke about.

Our second point is that some forces are likely to suffer absolute reductions in police numbers. According to the information that I have read, which is based on estimates

Column 964

from police authorities, those forces include Derbyshire, Dyfed-Powys, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Thames Valley. According to ACPO figures, of the 41 forces in the country, four have said that they will be able to improve their services, 17 will be in a standstill position, and 22 will have to make economies.

I gather that, in an intervention, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed (Mr. Beith) talked about the Minister putting money in the way of Tory areas. It is rare for me to have to correct him. [Interruption.] It was my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) who made the point. I apologise for pulling him up on this matter, but one of the historic events of 1993 was that, for the first time in 20th century history, not a single area of the country had a Conservative-controlled police authority. Such is the lack of confidence that the British people have in the Conservative Government.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): The Metropolitan police.

Mr. Straw: If the people of London had a say, the Metropolitan police too would be run by a police authority that was not controlled by the Conservatives.

Our third objection to the order is that the funding formula does not meet the Home Office's own criteria: it should be objective, based on the best available data, stable from year to year, command a wide measure of support and be free from perverse incentives. A chapter of accidents, about which the Minister was silent, have hit the development of the formula and £30 million was lost in the system, and chief constables, at a late date, received further information about changes in the formula. They may have involved only £1 million or £2 million in budgets of £150 million, but, as one chief constable said, when pay accounts for 85 per cent. of police costs, variations of £1 million or £2 million can make a huge difference to whether a particular service can be developed or has to be cut.

Mr. Ian Bruce: The hon. Gentleman is proving that he is a master of his brief and I compliment him on that. Given that he is a master of his brief, will he tell us how much more the Labour party thinks that we should be spending on the police? Will he spell out the Labour party's commitment?

Mr. Straw: The debate is about judging the order against the criteria that the Home Office and the Conservative party set in 1992 and this year. I share the hon. Gentleman's confidence that the Labour party will win the next election. If he retains his seat, I invite him to sit on this side of the House and listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) announcing in his first Budget the details of our spending plans.

Our fourth objection is that the system lacks the flexibility to enable relatively small local forces to deal with what, to them, can be the huge extra costs arising from unexpected public order situations, such as the demonstrations at Shoreham in Sussex. I have here a letter from Councillor Steve Bassam, the leader of Brighton council, in which he complains about the costs which, at that stage, were running at almost £1 million a week. He said:

"This is not a cost which the authority can sustain for very long without affecting other front line policing priorities."

Column 965

He wonders whether

"one off events of the sort currently occurring at Shoreham . . . have a distorting and long term effect on policing in the County." He continues:

"Crime is a major issue here in Brighton with high levels of burglary and auto-thefts, anything which diverts police time and finance away from tackling these issues is not popular".

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend recognise that it is not only small forces that are affected by such incidents? Even the Lancashire force, which is quite large, has to deal every other year with an incident which adds considerably to its policing costs. I refer, of course, to the Conservative party conference. In that one week, my hon. Friend's constituency, like mine, provides extra police to Blackpool and we in Lancashire have to pay the costs.

Mr. Straw: I agree and the matter has been the subject of continual representations to successive Home Secretaries. Some change has been made in the formula set out in the police grant report, but the Home Secretary and his colleague need to examine much more carefully what happens when police authorities have to bear the cost of what amount to national incidents or occasions. Can the costs better be pooled? It would certainly be better for unanticipated events such as the demonstration in Shoreham, which meant the local police force bringing in assistance from other areas. I accept that there is no perfect solution, but I think that a pooling arrangement would be an improvement.

Mr. John Greenway: I think that all hon. Members have some sympathy with his argument, but the hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he is not prepared to state what the Labour party's total spend on the police would be, even though it would be a finite sum of money. He criticises the Government's position for its lack of flexibility, but he would cream off money from other forces to pay for a problem in one particular area.

Mr. Straw: There are some functions--pre-eminently those carried out by the Metropolitan police--which are national police functions. That is reflected in the formula as the additional £130 million takes account of the Metropolitan police's national police functions. There are occasions elsewhere around the country--party conferences or unanticipated incidents- -that take on national dimensions. Depending on the size of the local police authority, the cost of dealing with those national incidents may be too much for it to bear. I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). I am not saying for one moment that there is an easy answer, but I am not certain that this motion is the answer.

Mr. Lord: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: This is the last intervention that I shall allow because we are under instructions to be brief.

Mr. Lord: One of the concerns of Suffolk police is the size of its contingency fund. As I understand it, it is anxious to build it up over the years in case it encounters events such as those at Shoreham, Brightlingsea or wherever. That could result, if we are not careful, in police forces all over the country building up contingency

Column 966

funds that they may never need. Perhaps we should rethink the whole business, dispense with contingency funds and allow police forces, when something strange happens, to apply to central Government.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. My understanding is that the police forces are this year required to build up balances of 2 per cent. One of the benefits of the old system--it was not always beneficial-- was that forces could use the balances of their much larger parent county council or metropolitan council. If there were the kind of pooling arrangement about which I have been talking, the hon. Gentleman would be exactly right to say that there would be less need for those balances.

The most that the Secretary of State could say about the settlement in evidence that he gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs was that across the country as a whole, it would enable the police service at least to maintain the existing number of police officers. I invite my hon. Friends to weigh those words with care, for the Secretary of State is admitting that some forces will suffer real cuts. That is light years away from the bullish claims which the Secretary of State and his right hon. and hon. Friends made before the last election.

It is no wonder that Mr. John Maples, the Conservative deputy chairman, had to admit in his now famous memorandum that crime is worse under the Conservatives. This settlement will do little to make crime better.

10.56 pm

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge): As an hon. Member who represents a constituency in the Metropolitan police area, I welcome the increase in grant of 3 per cent. of resources for the police service for 1995-96. That represents a budget of £1.619 billion compared with £1.6 billion in 1994-95. In addition, the £7 million cost of escort duties, which is no longer the Metropolitan police's responsibility, remains in its budget. I am especially glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has agreed that up to 2 per cent. underspending on the Metropolitan budget can be rolled forward in future. That will be worth £35 million and is a sensible way in which to handle any underspend that may result from the difficulty of hitting a precise budget of £1.6 billion.

My constituents, on whose behalf I speak in the debate, have good cause to be pleased with the excellent service that they are receiving. Only this week, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Paul Condon, advised me and other Members who represent London constituencies of the success of the service over the past year and of his hopes for the future. There is good news for the people of the Metropolitan police area, resulting in no small measure from the financial resources that have been provided. The anti-burglary campaign, Operation Bumblebee, has achieved a 17 per cent. reduction in residential burglary. There has been a 37 per cent. reduction in armed robbery at business premises and a reduction of 17 per cent. in car crime. In addition, the Metropolitan police is meeting its ambitious targets of responding to urgent calls in under 12 minutes in 90 per cent. of cases. As the Commissioner has pointed out, many of the successes that the Metropolitan police is achieving are due in large part to the communities with which it works. So Londoners are getting excellent policing.

Column 967

However, I have one concern. The Metropolitan police appears to have lost some 270 posts from the establishment level. No new officers have gone on to operational duties as a result of the change in responsibility for the escort service, despite the fact that, as I have said, for 1995-96, it was able to retain the £7 million cost of those services in the budget.

As the House knows, with the hon. Member for Warwickshire, North (Mr. O'Brien), I am a parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. I shall comment briefly on the allocation of resources as the federation sees it. In doing so, I emphasise that my role is to advise the federation on what Parliament is thinking and to inform the House what the federated ranks are thinking about this year's settlement. I am not a spokesman for the federated ranks--that is to say, those who hold the rank of constable, sergeant or inspector. I speak only to tell the House what they are thinking and to ask from my hon. Friend the Minister of State frank views in return.

The federation welcomes the 3 per cent. increase in the allocation for the police for the coming financial year. However, it points out that when account is taken of the prevailing rate of inflation, low though it is, 3 per cent. or, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State pointed out, about 4 per cent. represents what is virtually a standstill for police spending overall. It will mean that when chief constables take responsibility for force expenditure in April, there will be no really significant extra money to meet constantly rising demands on the service, with some exceptions. In other words, the federation sees the settlement as a standstill. It also means that the cost of policing will be 32p a day per head of the population. The federation believes that the public might be willing to pay a little more to secure the extra policing that many people talk about, especially more officers on the beat. However, I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has fought his corner hard with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor in securing this year's increase, and that must be taken into account in any mature consideration of the matter.

As the House knows, the new funding formula for police forces will come into effect on 1 April. It is the federation's view that, despite the 3 per cent. increase, the majority of forces in England and Wales will face some financial difficulties. There is concern that nearly half the forces will have to reduce their police officer and civilian establishment rates. There is a fear that about 1,500 police officers and civilians will be lost. Can my hon. Friend the Minister of State comment on those fears of the largest police staff association?

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, there has been a major change in the way in which funding is calculated. Unfortunately, it appears to the federation that a number of forces have been severely affected by the way in which the new formula works. We have already heard this evening about Cumbria, Derbyshire, Dyfed-Powys, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Thames Valley, which is next to my constituency of Uxbridge. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will have seen representatives of all those forces. They recognise that some forces have received considerably more money than they received last year. They are concerned that, because of the operation of the

Column 968

new formula, they have not received the resources that are necessary and that they may not be able to meet their local policing needs.

Cumbria, I am told--perhaps my hon. Friend will confirm or deny it--will lose 77 officers and 34 civilians. Derbyshire will lose 30 officers, and Dorset will lose 40. Dyfed-Powys will be particularly badly affected and, I am told, will lose 100 officers. Greater Manchester and Thames Valley will lose 350.

There is another serious problem to which I should like an answer this evening, and it is the inability of forces to pay commutation to officers who have been obliged to retire on ill-health grounds. Those officers, I am told, are being retained on full pay, although they are unable to work. Surely, when the Government have pressed the police service to get rid of officers who are unable to work and to retire them on sickness grounds, the service should be able to pay them their commutation rather than having to retain them on full pay.

There is continuing concern in the federation about the manning levels during the 1995-96 financial year. As it sees it, there will be a significant reduction in the overall establishment of police forces in England and Wales. If that proves to be correct, it is worrying, in view of the duties imposed on the police, not least by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which the chairman of the Police Federation described as "music in our ears".

If the Conservative party is to maintain its reputation--I know it will--as the party of law and order, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can assure the House that the number of police officers on force establishments will not be allowed to drop and there will be further consideration of the problems that I have mentioned. I turn now to the role of special constables. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, the federation accepts that the role of specials is very important as an adjunct to the regular trained force. But they cannot be a replacement for the regular police officer. Why is it, then, that the special constabulary development course was introduced with the objective of ensuring that specials achieve the same professional standards as fully attested officers?

Both the specials and the new parish constables will, I understand, be part of the force structure under the command of the chief constable. My hon. Friend the Minister will therefore understand that the increasing number of specials and the new parish constables could--I emphasise that word--be seen by regular officers as a cheap alternative to alleviate the manning shortfall. Can my hon. Friend assure me and the federation that that is not the Government's intention, and that they will maintain full support for the concept of forces which are properly manned by regular officers and supported by specials and parish constables where appropriate?

I shall make one final point. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me and the federated ranks that transfer of powers to local authorities to deal with parking offences and the ability of local authorities to provide off- street parking facilities with the money they receive from fines will not reduce the funding of police budgets? After all, the proceeds of those fines previously went to the Exchequer. Can he assure the House that--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

Column 969

11.6 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): When people from a large number of force areas compare the Minister's comments tonight and the Home Secretary's earlier promise that it will be possible for police establishments and numbers to remain the same with their chief constables' statements that they are being forced to reduce police officer numbers by a combination of the effect of this settlement and other pressures, who are they likely to believe? I think that they are more likely to believe the chief constables, whom they recognise as holding a non-partisan point of view and as simply seeking to carry out the good policing of their areas.

Chief constables in a number of areas are having to say that because of many inherent problems in the settlement that cannot be solved without the necessary funding being provided. In the latter part of his speech, the Minister began to make clear what some of those problems are. If he had not done so, interventions by several of his hon. Friends and the remarks made on behalf of the Police Federation by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) would have demonstrated the problems vividly. I know that a succession of Members have been to see Ministers, along with deputations from various local authorities, to explain the problems that many of them will face following the settlement.

There are a number of common threads to the situation. A number of forces are already making savings to meet earlier budget pressures or capping limits, and they are having to squeeze hard to keep within existing budgets. Some forces--including mine in Northumbria--are working hard to thin out their higher ranks to put more officers in the front line. That is a valuable but difficult change to manage, and it has other consequences. It involves retiring senior officers, and therefore putting additional pressures on pension provisions. I shall return to that point.

Mr. Maclean: Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that it would be perfectly valid and appropriate if a force such as his local constabulary made an overall reduction in the number of police officers but increased the number of bobbies on the beat?

Mr. Beith: It is possible to achieve greater use of current manpower, but most chief officers have told the Home Office in the past year that they believe that, even with such efforts, they need additional total manpower. Not one of them was granted additional establishment manpower by the Home Office in the past year. There is a dispute between most of the chief constables and the Home Office over precisely how much can be achieved and how many more additional officers are needed. Other factors create problems. The way in which rural areas are dealt with has been referred to, and that affects the force in the Minister's area of Cumbria. It also affects Dyfed-Powys, and other rural forces throughout the country. There are no reserves for the new police authorities. Funds cannot be transferred from local authorities, as under the previous system. Reserves will have to be set aside, will build up only after some years and already represent a claim on funds for the first year. Special factors affect certain forces, some of which have been mentioned, such as the huge cost of policing party conferences. The Conservative party conference in

Column 970

Bournemouth, which is far more expensive to police than any of the others, will probably affect Dorset every two years and will impose an extremely heavy burden on the police budget.

The Cromwell street investigation imposes a huge cost on the Gloucestershire force and the effect of the Shoreham case on Sussex has also been mentioned. Those are all large items in police force budgets.

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham): My right hon. Friend mentioned Gloucestershire police force. During the past four years, Gloucestershire county council has spent above its standard spending assessment on the police. Can he think of any reason why the Home Secretary has turned down the special request for a grant to help with the Cromwell street investigation, which has cost £1.4 million so far?

Mr. Beith: No, and I refer the Minister to his own words about the position of the Metropolitan police force and its special responsibilities. From time to time, other forces have to carry especially heavy responsibilities and we need some mechanism by which we can provide for them if we are to budget sensibly. Otherwise, as has been pointed out, there will have to be much higher provision for contingencies, which will make sensible day-to-day police operations more difficult to manage.

Pensions are another important common thread of most of the complaints. The Home Office estimated that pensions would cost police forces 9 per cent. of their budgets, but in most forces the cost seems to be between 10 and 14 per cent.--certainly, in many of the cases that have been referred to me. The reasons include the Sheehy report, the retiring of senior ranks, people serving an extra term and getting the lump sum commutation and the fact that officers recruited during the 1964 recruiting bulge are retiring. Those pensions have to be paid and they represent a higher burden on authorities than that for which the Home Office seems to have provided.

Those problems are compounded by the miscalculations, some of which have been corrected during the second round of the settlement, although others have not. The errors in the revenue support grant settlement showed that the departments were not getting it right. It thus becomes easier to understand how the mess has arisen. Let us consider the size of the shortfall that some of the forces face. Suffolk has a £2 million shortfall on the cost of pensions and is threatened with the loss of 86 officers. Thames Valley has a total shortfall of £7.5 million and might lose more than 300 officers. Dorset is one of only three forces to have received a cut in funding. Even by spending to the capping limit, Dorset is allowed only 2.2 per cent., as against 2.5 per cent. Greater Manchester has been talking of the possible loss of more than 300 officers. Dyfed-Powys has a £2 million shortfall. Cumbria has been mentioned and, in Devon and Cornwall, the cost of pensions is estimated to be 14 per cent. The Metropolitan police force wanted 150 more officers, but it will not get them.

When we look at all those examples--as our constituents will--we cannot be satisfied with the settlement. There are two ways to resolve the problems. The first will require a reworking of the formula, which will lead to resources being taken from some forces to assist others--any resettlement has some element of that, but this problem will not be solved by that means alone.

Column 971

Inevitably, additional resources are necessary to make a fundamental reorganisation feasible without producing huge changes or unfairly limiting the forces that would otherwise be expected to contribute.

Mr. Stephen rose --

Mr. Beith: I will not give way as we are all under a time constraint and I want to bring my remarks to a close.

In our costed budget proposals, in the autumn, we included a proposal to increase the number of police officers to the extent that chief constables then requested--2,675 officers, at a cost of £80 million. The Home Secretary granted no increase in officers in 1994 and is now telling police authorities that if chief constables choose to do so collectively--I assume he means collectively--they will be able to keep forces at their present level. He is not assuming an increase in the number of officers and a significant number of chief constables will ultimately have to tell him that it is not a matter of their choosing--unless by "choosing" he means that, having kept the same number of officers, he stops them using vehicles, denies them essential equipment, allows no overtime even when it is essential and in various other ways negates the value of appointing those officers, so extensive will be the cuts in other services in order to maintain them.

Under this settlement, the Home Secretary's promise will not be kept throughout the country. The task of fighting crime will be immensely more difficult because, even with the best will in the world and the most effective reorganisation, many forces will be unable to keep even the same number of officers in the front line, and some may have fewer. The Minister's remarks showed a glimmer of recognition that the formula is not right, that it has had some bad consequences and that it needs to be changed. But additional resources will be required to solve that problem and give our communities the policing that they need to ensure that they have not only a sense of security but effective crime fighting.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Liberal Democrat spokesman to complain about the increased cost of policing when his party has--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order for me, and it is not in order to waste the House's time in such a short debate.

11.16 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding): I have no doubt that the settlement is a good deal for the country as a whole and a genuine manifestation of the priority which the Government set on good policing and law and order. After all, a settlement of more than 4 per cent. for the coming financial year is generous, given that inflation is barely half that.

Opposition Members seem to dislike my introductory remarks. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who attempted to make a number of strictures, sounded hollow and unconvincing because he notably declined every opportunity that was given to him to say how the Labour party would do any better. I do not intend to dwell on the Labour party any longer.

I listened to the speech by my hon. Friend the Minister of State with admiration for the general settlement that he has achieved for the country as a whole, but with a

Column 972

growing and intense sense of painful envy because my county of Lincolnshire has not shared in the general bonanza which other police forces seem to have enjoyed. Unlike Derbyshire, we have not been given an opportunity next year to spend up to 8 per cent. more. We learnt a few moments ago that Sussex is relishing the prospect of spending £18 million more next year. We have not been given that opportunity. Next year, Lincolnshire's police budget will be capped to within £150,000 of this year's budget--the 1994-95 actual spend--so a real reduction will be imposed on us. My constituents regard that as an invidious, undeserved and grievous blow.

Unlike the areas represented by Opposition Members, Lincolnshire has not suffered from a lunatic council. We have heard all about Derbyshire's lunatic council, for which that county now appears to have been rewarded. Until last year when we lost control of it, for 20 years Lincolnshire had a Conservative council which set an exemplary record of good, responsible and prudent local government, so it is incomprehensible that we should have been treated in that way.

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware of Lincolnshire's profound reaction to his proposals. When one makes a national settlement that is as generally well conceived as this one, it is inevitable that some anomalies, difficulties and unfairness will arise, particularly when a new formula is introduced.

May I make a strong two-fold plea to my hon. Friend the Minister? First, he said that he will seek to find a way to ensure that the sparsity factor is included in the formula in future. That is of obvious significance to Lincolnshire because sparsity is a major factor in a large county such as Lincolnshire. It takes a lot longer to get a police car to an incident; more resources are needed to achieve the response time that is more easily achieved in densely populated districts. As I understand it, the purpose of the standard spending assessment formula is to put everyone on the same basis. I cannot believe that it is beyond the range of human ingenuity to devise a way in which sparsity can be included in the formula. Secondly, whatever my hon. Friend the Minister does to the formula will not help us in the coming year. If, as I suspect will inevitably occur, Lincolnshire police committee decides that the only right, responsible and possible course for it to take in the circumstances is to set a budget which is, at least, at the same level in real terms--and therefore above the capping limit--I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will not reject it out of hand. I hope that he will give it careful consideration, listen fairly to all the arguments that are put to him and give Lincolnshire police committee a chance to convince him of the case, even if my words have failed to do so.

11.21 pm

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), is the Paul Daniels of the Government Front Bench--whether he does it by mirrors or by prestidigitation. I read with amazement the figures for Merseyside police that accompanied the Home Secretary's letter. It is pointed out that the puny increase of 0.8 per cent. in the budget becomes 2.5 per cent. if the full capping limit is exploited, but it is not pointed out that the chief constable needs the courage to increase his precept by 20 per cent.--on Merseyside, that is no small challenge.

Column 973

The Minister said that there were representations from the Merseyside police authority, as result of which the formula was changed. But let us consider the way in which it changed. The interim police grant went up from £105.8 million to £106.7 million. The revenue support grant increased from £62.3 million to £63.3 million. But, by a process of mirrors, the special damping grant was reduced from £1.5 million to nought, so the net increase was simply £400,000.

Furthermore, because of the way in which the police grant has been calculated, the Home Secretary takes credit for the fact that £1.774 million will not have to be found by the Merseyside police authority for common police services such as the computer. But everyone knows that that was a mistake and the position is guaranteed only for 1995-96. No one feels secure about that element of funding for the next year. According to the Home Secretary's figures, the pensions allocation for Merseyside has been increased by £1.81 million. But that is by no means adequate compensation for the £2.5 million increase in the recurrent costs and the £3.5 million increase in lump sum payment in the past year.

The formula penalises Merseyside. The Minister made great play of the formula's objectivity. We know from bitter experience of the Government that there is no such thing as an objective formula. Formulae contain selected factors which are weighted. In this case, the selection and the weighting are utterly wrong for Merseyside. As the establishment element is phased out, Merseyside will face a £13 million budget deficit. The number of personnel--both police and civilian--will have to be reduced by 100, and there will be more cuts as the situation worsens. Unless the Government radically rethink the formula and look carefully at pensions-- preferably more carefully than the Minister suggested in his opening remarks--the prospects for Merseyside are catastrophic.

11.25 pm

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I will make a brief contribution to the debate because the House wants to move to a Division and I think that my hon. Friend the Minister intends to say a few more words. It is clear that hon. Members on both sides of the House would like an increase in police spending. No issue concerns our constituents more than law and order and the lack of police presence on our streets--particularly in rural areas. This is the first occasion since the enactment of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill that we have had a chance to consider the effect of the new funding arrangements for the police service.

Viewed in the context of the total public spending round and the settlement for local authorities, which the House will consider tomorrow evening, the police settlement is very helpful and generous. I would like every police authority in England, Wales and Scotland to receive more money, but the fact remains that it is not easy to allocate public funds at present.

The Government's achievement in this police grant settlement is far more helpful to police authorities than many hon. Members feared it would be when the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill was introduced. I remember telling the House on that occasion that it is all very well giving chief constables the flexibility to decide how many

Column 974

police officers to recruit, or to decide to spend more money on technology and new equipment such as computers or new police cars--many of them will take those decisions--but we must ensure that there will be at least an inflation-linked increase in total police spending or, better still, a real terms increase. We now have a national real terms increase.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out that the single factor which undermines police spending power most is the vexed problem of police pensions. The formula cannot address adequately the fact that more and more police forces are having to contribute significantly to officer retirement--mostly on the ground of ill-health. We must find a better solution to that problem. I conclude by admonishing the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who said that a worst estimate under the new formula and this settlement might mean that there will be 900 fewer police officers. That scenario has also been suggested by the Association of Chief Police Officers. Chief constables will have to decide their spending priorities.

Has the hon. Gentleman come to the House in the past 15 years and congratulated the Government on the fact that there are 16,000 more police and civilian officers and that more money has been spent on the police service than on any other part of the public sector? He has never done that and he never will. The settlement demonstrates that support for the police service is a Government priority and I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister of State on securing such a good deal for the police service.

11.29 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) showed remarkable cheek in attacking my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and trying to defend the Government's record. Does not the hon. Gentleman recall that he, like all Conservative Members, fought the last general election promising an increase of 1,000 police officers that year but that the Government delivered a cut of 401? The hon. Gentleman and Ministers should apologise to the House, rather than criticise my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn.

The House should bear in mind the background to the report. The Conservatives have been deeply damaged by their failure to combat crime. Recorded crime has more than doubled and crimes of violence continue to soar. Specific victims and whole communities feel neglected. The British crime survey shows that actual crime has been rising two and a half times as fast as recorded crime since 1991. The best that the Home Secretary can offer is to walk with a purpose and to cut compensation for victims of the most horrific and violent attacks, including police officers injured on duty.

The last two Home Secretaries have sought to attack everyone in a blatant attempt to escape the blame that is rightly put at the Government's door. Those at the front line in our prisons and probation officers--who are at the front line in communities--are among the regular targets in this long- running farce. Above all, the police have been under constant attack on a variety of fronts, from the ill-judged Sheehy review to the attempt to take central

Column 975

control over the police enshrined in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. There has been continued insecurity.

The Government have broken their promises, and the report before the House shows their failure to produce a fair, transparent formula for setting police grant in the coming year.

There are some positive, welcome points. The publication of standard spending assessments for police authorities in Wales flushed out both the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Wales. We pleaded with them to end the secrecy surrounding the Welsh figures and demanded that they got their act together. In recent years neither the police grant nor cash to local authorities has been adequate, and the increase in cash for South Wales police this year--the first of transparency--shows just how right we were. Our communities have been condemned to two years of turmoil and fear, while police officers have felt neglected and undervalued. Transparency has at last forced those Secretaries of State to accept that Welsh Labour Members and councillors were right and the cash levels inadequate, and to put right that iniquity.

Even this week came a curious change, as those same Ministers had to admit that they got it wrong in Dyfed- Powys and north Wales. I am glad that the Government have listened since last November and increased the cash for those forces, but where is the money to be found? The overall police grant is to be redistributed, and the Welsh Office sum will go direct to police authorities--but the figure precepted on local authorities will have to come from their already stretched budgets at a time when we need our councils to increase and extend their work on crime prevention, protecting the youth service and partnership with the police on crime-cutting initiatives. Given that only one crime in 50 ends up being punished in court, and only one in 750 or more ends in a custodial sentence, the capacity for developing local partnerships cannot be underestimated. I do not believe that the welcome increase in cash for the police has been compensated by the cash given to local authorities. That last-minute change tells us that the formula is not dependable and transparent.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (Warwickshire, North): My hon. Friend is aware of the concerns of the Police Federation of England and Wales, to which the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) referred. The federation says that up to 1,500 police officer and civilian posts could be lost by the new formula. If chief constables and the federation are not assured by the formula, how can we be assured?

Mr. Michael: I acknowledge the strength of the case made by my hon. Friend, of which the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) is clearly aware--although the hon. Gentleman almost apologised for making the points that he did. I understand his embarrassment. The hon. Gentleman referred to a 3 per cent. increase, which is shown by the figures to be more accurate than 4 per cent. Given a 3.4 per cent. gross domestic product deflator, the need to construct a reserve fund, the burden of unfunded pensions and the fears expressed by the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord), a 3 per cent. settlement is hardly generous.

Column 976

The proportion of budgets taken by pensions in 1990-91 was 6.8 per cent. of the total. By 1994-95 they are expected to take more than 9 per cent.; and the actuarial studies show that that trend will continue well into the next century.

When the draft formula was seen in the autumn and there was an outcry over the figures, we were told that they were for exemplification only. "You don't like the figures," said the Home Secretary. "Okay, here are some different ones." If the formula is satisfactory, should not it produce a dependable outcome, and not be subject to major fluctuations as the Home Office wrestles with it and tries to squeeze out of it a result that makes sense? It is not good enough to have uncertainty for the future and the likelihood of large fluctuations from year to year. The Minister even acknowledged that they were likely.

Trained and experienced police officers cannot be turned on one year and off the next like a tap. The formula should not be open to distortion; it should not need major intervention by the Home Secretary each year; and it should allow sensible planning by chief constables and police authorities.

Mr. Lord rose --

Mr. Michael: Today's report fails to provide us with a formula that is dependable, transparent and stable from year to year. That is what the police and the community want. The problem is not new. We have pressed successive Home Secretaries to treat the matter with the seriousness and urgency that it deserves. This report should be marked: "Could do better-- must do better--try again." That is the signal that we will give the Home Secretary through our votes tonight, in the best interests of the police and the public.

11.36 pm

Next Section

  Home Page