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Mr. Boateng: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Davies: In a moment. My hon. Friend has had45 minutes. He made a theatrical speech, but who am I, as a member of the Bar, to complain about that either?

I ask my hon. Friend to set aside these quadratic equations and to exercise some ministerial discretion.

Mr. Boateng: I have enormously enjoyed my right hon. Friend's important contribution. If I may address him not as a member of the Bar, but as a former Treasury Minister--a distinguished former Treasury Minister--I must say that it is a little disingenuous to suggest that it is possible to put aside the equations and the formulae in the way that he suggests. He knows that a needs-based formula has winners and losers. Of course, it is sad when one's own authority is a loser, but I am sure that he will recognise the force of a needs-based formula of this sort.

Mr. Davies: I was coming to an end. I am sorry that my hon. Friend has raised the question of Treasury Ministers. I thought that he must have been a Treasury Minister when I heard parts of his speech. He said that money is bad for one; that one does not need any money. He implied that if we give more money, less crime will be detected. From the way that he spoke, I thought that my hon. Friend had done the tour d'horizon of the Treasury and was now back at the Home Office. Even former Treasury Ministers perhaps would not speak as he did. He told us we do not need money; we can become more efficient. That may be, but Dyfed-Powys is an efficient force. It now needs a little bit more money to make it more efficient in future and to reduce the crime level in my constituency.

2.44 pm

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire): This speech is a last minute appeal to the Minister to rebalance the settlement, which, as it is now constructed, leaves Bedfordshire in an extremely difficult position. But I start by thanking him and his civil servants for their courtesy and willingness to listen when we in Bedfordshire went to see them. They gave us plenty of time and we were grateful for the opportunity to put our case. One of the civil servants present was from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and I shall say something about that later.

The Bedfordshire police force recognises that, in any settlement, there will be winners and losers, but we cannot understand why we have come off worst in the country. The increase for Bedfordshire is only 0.8 per cent. The national average is 2.7 per cent. But among our neighbouring counties, Cambridgeshire has had an increase of 3.9 per cent., Northampton 3.7 per cent. and Suffolk 4.1 per cent. They have thus had increases above the national average. I do not accept for a minute that those counties need increases so far ahead of Bedfordshire in order to deliver an acceptable level of policing.

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Next door to us are Milton Keynes and Thames Valley with an increase of 2.4 per cent. That is certainly part of history. As always, Milton Keynes gets its good fair share of state spending, to the detriment of Bedfordshire. Why it wants to burst into Bedfordshire and take part of our area, I simply do not know, but this is the wrong debate for raising that.

If the 0.8 per cent. is turned into cash, it is £0.5 million. Given our pension problems, the salaries and the wage settlements, and the percentage that has to go on them, we cannot make a saving of £3.2 million without major manpower surgery, both officer and civilian. When we went to see him, the Minister listened carefully and courteously to the Unison representative from Bedfordshire who explained what effect the settlement would have on Unison members in Bedfordshire.

We were not sitting around in Bedfordshire last summer thinking, "Oh well, we'll get plenty of money." We were planning for a reduction: for a worst case scenario. We were planning for a £2 million reduction. Last summer, the authority started work identifying cuts and effecting efficiency savings, but in their wildest dreams, the police authority and those interested never imagined that the cut would be £3.2 million.

The unfairness of the settlement is deeply felt in Bedfordshire in view of the successes that we have had and have had recognised in the past two to three years by Her Majesty's inspectorate and the district auditor, as shown by the figures themselves.

The detection rate, which increased from 21 per cent. to 35 per cent., did not just happen--it was hard won. The primary detection rate now stands at 29 per cent., domestic burglary has been reduced by 25 per cent. and non-domestic burglary by 50 per cent. Motor vehicle crime has been reduced by 30 per cent. As the Minister knows, Luton rests on Vauxhall's ability to produce many cars, so we are a high car-owning county. The detection rate for motor vehicle crime has risen from 11 per cent. to 25 per cent. One could go on putting such figures to the Minister, but I know that he is familiar with them.

The Prime Minister said that success in policing would be rewarded. Alas, we have not had a reward. Those improvements have not been achieved by Bedfordshire police alone. The police-business partnership has been an example for the country--a fact that has been recognised by the National Lottery Charities Board. The partnership work extends to Homewatch, of which Bedfordshire is one of the leaders nationally, Victim Support and the Luton crime reduction partnership. The development of all those organisations in Bedfordshire is such that few opportunities exist for them to bid for additional funding, as they are so very far advanced.

The Minister will know of the Leighton Buzzard crime prevention panel. Leighton Buzzard, like all Bedfordshire towns, has a rapidly growing population. Leighton Buzzard's concern is that the cuts in the police budget are not self-contained but will have a knock-on effect on other areas involving partnership with the public.

Moreover, if the reward for increased effectiveness is reduced funding--the Bedfordshire police force was one of the most successful in the country last year at reducing and detecting crime--the willingness of individuals to take part in partnership activities may well be reduced. Morale is extremely important in voluntary activities. Without a good community spirit, it would be far easier

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for members of the crime prevention panel to concentrate on purely local Homewatch affairs than to spend time on projects of benefit to the community as a whole. Community partnership needs to be fostered, and arbitrary cuts, apparently unrelated to proven increases in efficiency and effectiveness, are not the way to do that.

The immediate future for the Bedfordshire police authority and Bedfordshire police looks bleak, and there is a strong feeling that there has been a great deal of unfairness, given the circumstances that we are in. All we ask is to be treated as others have been treated and to be given equitable treatment.

An increase in council tax is not the way out of this problem. An increase of 2.5 per cent. in spend would be considered quite reasonable by people in Bedfordshire, but when they realise that, because of the peculiar gearing, that translates into a council tax increase of 16.5 per cent., they certainly will not be prepared to accept such an increase for one moment.

We are constrained by the gearing of the system: we cannot shove up council tax in order to continue the good work that we do with the police. I ask the Minister whether, even at this later hour, there could be some marginal relief for Bedfordshire this year or, at the very worst, whether a means could be found of spreading the reduction over a longer period.

I should say a word about the DETR official who was present at the meeting. We in Bedfordshire are doing what people in Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire are doing; we are helping London with its housing. We do not have a standstill population, by any means. As the tragic deindustrialisation of Dunstable goes on, houses spring up like daffodils in April when the firms have gone, so we have to make police numbers keep pace with increases in population.

The Minister knows that. He once stood as a candidate for Hemel Hempstead which, as he also knows, is, to a great extent, about helping London with its housing. Londoners who move to Bedfordshire and to other places expect policing, and police numbers, to be as good as in London's. We in Bedfordshire are therefore somewhat puzzled at the Metropolitan police service's special payment, which has gone up by 16.5 per cent.

This is a terribly disappointing settlement and I am afraid that the Minister cannot match his great courtesy with some practical help and action for Bedfordshire. Let me give one fact and make one prediction. Here is the fact: between March 1979 and March 1997, police strength in Bedfordshire increased by 192, from 902 to 1,094; between March 1997 and September 1998, that strength fell by 43, from 1,094 to 1,051--backwards with Labour.

I remember when Labour activists, some of whom I see in the streets and some of whom come to my surgeries, ran around my constituency with propaganda leaflets saying, "You'll be safer under Labour. We'll do better on the police." They do not say that now; when I see them in the streets, they have a look of injured guilt on their faces because of what has happened.

I think that--deep, deep down--the Minister knows that we should have a better deal. I have given a fact, and I said that I would also make a prediction. Here it is: the headlines in the local papers in Bedfordshire in May will read, "Heavy losses for Labour in the local council elections." We will all know what has caused that.

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