Previous SectionIndexHome Page

2.53 pm

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, because tackling the problems of crime and disorder is probably the No. 1 issue in Salford, the city that I represent. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) is about to leave the Chamber, so I say to him that I was absolutely amazed by his contribution, which was almost obsessed with numbers. The number that he failed to mention was the doubling of crime that he and the previous Conservative Government presided over during the past few years.

I invite the right hon. Gentleman to come to my city to witness the results of the Tory years. Crime and disorder have escalated almost out of control, people are often under siege and there has been a huge increase in burglary, robbery and violent crime. That is the legacy of the Tory Government, and his use of numbers was very selective indeed. We should concentrate not on numbers, but on how effective and efficient we are in providing policing.

I welcome the settlement. The national increase is 2.7 per cent., which will give us an extra £1.25 billion of expenditure over the next three years and will enable police forces to plan ahead. The ability to look ahead with regard to the needs of our communities, and to plan for the policing that will meet those needs, has been lacking.

Unlike Bedfordshire, the increase in Greater Manchester is slightly above the national average, at 2.9 per cent. I am delighted--[Interruption.] It is not a matter of luck. I am delighted that police resources are being targeted on the areas of greatest need. Resources will always be limited, but we need to target the resources that we have on the areas with the highest crime.

I speak for many Greater Manchester Members of Parliament when I say that we have been concerned about the way the budget process has proceeded in the past year. There have been a number of scare stories in the community that we faced budget cuts of £15 million or £18 million and that front-line policing would be slashed. Those stories have caused huge concern to the public, and a great deal of concern to the staff involved, but when the police authority examined its budget--rigorously and in detail--and got down to the nitty-gritty of where it was spending its money, it was able to make £10.5 million of efficiency savings.

The police authority told me yesterday that it will be able to live within the settlement, without any reductions in front-line operational policing. What matters to the people whom I represent is that the police are there, making the community safe. The authority proposes to restructure the tactical vehicle crime unit and to deliver off-road motor cycling facilities through other people. It has looked again at its cleaning and catering services, it has reviewed the traffic warden service and it has even restructured the mounted unit. I hope that nothing painful has been done to the horses.

That shows that, with imagination and creativity, we can reduce expenditure on services, but that need not affect the front-line policing of our communities. It shows what can be done, if we have the time to do it. The difficulty is that these things are done hastily, and not in the best way, when people budget from year to year or from month to month. The Audit Commission report estimates that this country could save up to £80 million

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1117

in procurement, contracting, sharing training and sharing equipment if we thought about doing things in a different, more creative way.

This is new ground for many police authorities. They have not had to face the same pressures on their budgets as many local authorities have had to face over the past 20 years. It is a challenge for them to get down to the detail of their budgets and examine what they are spending their money on.

The Government, by introducing the best value scheme, are giving police authorities the tools to do the job. I am delighted that the Greater Manchester police area is piloting the best value scheme, and I am even more pleased that F division in Salford is one of the four target divisions where the scheme is moving on apace. The schemes are asking fundamental questions such as, "Should we be carrying out this function? How are we delivering the objectives that we want to achieve, and at what cost? How are our neighbours performing in each of these service areas and how can we ratchet up our performance to meet the standards of the very best?"

That is a methodical and rigorous approach. It has taken far too long for it to arrive, in terms of maximising the effectiveness of the money spent on policing. People in my community are crying out for more effective and more efficient policing that they are able to see in action. The best value scheme has smart objectives, which are supposed to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. As well as smart objectives, I hope that we achieve some very smart policing in the city over the next few years.

We should also be asking some more fundamental questions about the role of the police. Should highly trained and expensive police officers be carrying out routine traffic duties such as monitoring speed traps, which we see around us every day? We should not shy away from such questions and it cannot be right that only the police can carry out certain sacrosanct functions. Provided that we have sufficient safeguards, and provided that we have thought the system through, we must be imaginative and open our minds to different ways of doing things.

Many of my constituents are absolutely enraged when they see six or seven police officers conducting an operation on illegal parking in an affluent part of our borough when they find it difficult to get the police to respond to violent incidents of crime and disorder in the inner city. We must look at our policing priorities. Should the police escort heavy loads on motorways? Should officers police football matches? Should they look after stray dogs or stray people who turn up on their doorstep? It is incumbent on us all to maximise the effect that we achieve from public expenditure, and the police should not be an exception.

The new powers in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 will be absolutely crucial in helping us to rebuild the safety of our communities. The new range of tools that we have under that Act--the anti-social behaviour orders, parenting orders and reparation orders--are key to rebuilding the inner cities. I fear, however, that unless we free up resources by analysing what we spend our money on now, we shall not have the money to implement the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 fully, and to obtain the maximum benefit from the new tools that are at our disposal.

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1118

I do not think that we can have "business as usual" in the police force. It must be said that, in some police forces, that simply is not working. Greater Manchester police are improving their detection rate, but they still detect only about 20 per cent. of crime; the national average is 26 per cent. The detection rate for burglary is only ll per cent., while the national average is 17 per cent. It has risen in recent years, which shows the low base from which we are starting, but the fact remains that performance is not good enough. We must try to ratchet up standards, and ensure that we deliver high-quality services. Our ratio of police to public is higher than the national ratio, but I think that highlights the issue. We are talking not just about numbers, but about how those involved are working, the operations in which they are engaged and how those operations are managed and monitored. That is what delivers the return for our investment.

I want to mention a couple of innovations in F division in Salford which I consider very exciting. The first pathfinder initiative for the new operational policing strategy involves taking officers out of headquarters and on to the streets, and making them take "ownership" of their neighbourhoods. A sergeant and six police officers are now dedicated to each of our neighbourhoods. They have a personal responsibility for every rise in crime; as for reductions in crime, they have a stake in the results that they are able to achieve. That could almost be described as a revolution in policing. The community now sets the priorities, and the police--along with their local-authority, business and voluntary-sector partners--help to deliver what is required. That is the sort of high-value, high-quality policing that we want, and this Government are helping us to achieve it.

Salford has just been allocated part of the burglary initiative moneys that will protect the most vulnerable people in my community. Some 4 per cent. of people in this country are victims of 42 per cent. of recorded crime, which is shocking. People in inner cities, and in constituencies such as mine, suffer a hugely disproportionate amount of crime. Measures such as the burglary initiative, which is intended to make their homes and communities safer, can help to protect them.

Today's debate is about spending our money wisely and well. In that context, I feel compelled to bring to the Minister's attention an important issue that has come to light in Greater Manchester over the past week. It has featured in our local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, and apparently, for the past 12 months the Audit Commission has been investigating it--investigating, that is, alleged mismanagement and waste involving important contracts in the Greater Manchester police area.

It is alleged that the construction of the new crime squad headquarters at Bradford park in Manchester has exceeded its budget by £3 million; that it was necessary to tear out inappropriate equipment, which has cost a further half a million pounds; and that expensive consultants were engaged at a cost of £1.5 million, without compliance with European tendering procedures. All that is of great concern to the people of Greater Manchester.

We are hard pressed enough to need to secure good value from our expenditure. If there is any question of waste or mismanagement in the police force, I ask the Minister to investigate, and ensure that appropriate action is taken. Yesterday I spoke to the chair of the police

4 Feb 1999 : Column 1119

authority, who gave me an undertaking that the police authority would act swiftly and decisively, and that there would be full and public debate as soon as possible. These matters must not be covered up; they must be properly exposed and investigated.

Finally, let me raise one or two long-term issues that the Government must address if we are to continue to make progress in the policing of our area. The first is police pensions. I know that it affects everyone in the country, but I must point out that, in 1986, police pensions in Greater Manchester cost £12.7 million--7.6 per cent. of the total budget. This year, the cost has risen to the astronomical figure of £59.2 million, 16 per cent. of the budget. That is a doubling in real terms, and constitutes a huge amount to find.

We also need to review the reasons for many retirements and pension increases, to manage sicknesses and medical retirements, and to ensure that our police forces are monitoring such developments as rigorously as possible. Given that pension costs are likely to rise by another £8 million next year, and by a further £10 million the year after that, the issue is clearly important.

The second issue is the renewal of the public communications system in Greater Manchester. At present, we use local wavelengths, which costs us about half a million pounds. In future, there is to be a nationally imposed system. I understand that the annual running cost will be about £8 million, and that the capital cost has been estimated at about £22 million. Those are large sums for a police authority to find. I understand that our police authority will be asking for a meeting with Ministers in the next few months to discuss some of the larger-term issues, and I hope that it will be possible to arrange such a meeting. Another issue that concerns us is the policing of the Commonwealth games in Manchester.

As I said at the outset, nothing is more important to the people of Salford than effective, efficient policing that will help to provide a safe community. Certainly, today's settlement will help my police authority to establish the necessary structure. The requirements are demanding and challenging, but they do not come before time. We must ensure that the police, like everyone else, provide value for money, and that we obtain the maximum return for every investment that we make.

The Government have said that there will be extra funds, but it is something for something, not something for nothing. We must ensure that we deliver efficiency, effectiveness and value for money--and then the Government will support the police. We are determined to tackle the Tory legacy of crime and lawlessness in our cities. The statistic that we should never forget is this: crime doubled under the Tory Government, and that is what we must deal with now.

Next Section

IndexHome Page