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3.6 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): This is a short debate on a big subject. I am especially pleased to follow the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), who always manages to deliver a large amount of information in a relatively short time. I am particularly pleased that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) did not manage to escape without being given his share. I certainly agree with the hon. Lady's sentiments with regard to the last Government's performance, although I disagree with her about the nature of the settlement. I shall

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say more about that later. I accept that she is sincere in wanting better policing in her area, but I do not believe that the settlement will lead to that.

I had hoped to return upstairs with the Minister and others for some more gentle consideration of sexual offences, but I understand that is now not going to happen--although we shall not have any more time for our debate in the Chamber. [Laughter.] When I say "upstairs", I mean "in Committee". I am glad that the debate so far has not become too partisan, except in regard to police numbers. I am not ashamed of my wish to dwell on that issue, as it is a key issue for my colleagues and me. The number of police officers has fallen by 781 since the general election, and we predict a further fall of at least 500 over the coming years following our analysis of the facts and of the implications of settlements under the last Government.

I was interested to learn that the Minister now believes that arguments about numbers are sterile and simplistic. I assume that they were not sterile and simplistic when they were employed by Labour spokesmen in opposition. I am thinking in particular of the current Secretary of State for Wales who, as recently as 1996, used similar arguments against the Tory Government.

The Government certainly deserve praise in one respect: they have learnt lessons from previous political mistakes. They decided not to make any commitment on numbers, because they saw what political difficulties that would cause. We heard a bizarre argument from the Minister about the Home Secretary's powers to dictate or not. He seemed to want a return to the former position--[Interruption.] Perhaps I misunderstood. He seemed to want to disclaim responsibility because he no longer had the power, but did not go as far as committing himself to taking the power back.

We find ourselves in a looking-glass situation. I think that, if my mathematics is correct, it would be possible to spin the Chamber round 180 degrees to hear arguments opposite to those advanced in 1995 and 1996, before the change of Government, from hon. Members on both sides of the House. What we have learnt in this debate is that, while the Conservatives tried to increase police numbers and failed abjectly, the current Labour Government are simply refusing to make any commitment to increase them.

Sir Norman Fowler: The hon. Gentleman speaks of abject failure. Does he deny that, under the last Conservative Government, police numbers increased by 15,300?

Mr. Allan: I was referring to the period between 1992 and 1997, which is recent enough to judge the performance of the previous Government.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Having been a chairman of a police authority during the period of the previous Government, having gone every year to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) to say that we needed more police in Avon and Somerset, and having received every year the answer, "No," may I corroborate the points that my hon. Friend makes? Police numbers did fall.

Mr. Allan: That is true. In 1992, the previous Government made a clear commitment, of which the

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Labour party in opposition enjoyed reminding them at the time, that they would increase police numbers by 1,000 over their period in office; they fell by 500. It is fair to say that that commitment was broken.

Perhaps one of the most amusing pieces of evidence that we have had in the debate was the Home Office press release that talked about a "fair and challenging settlement", which is a triumph of the spin doctors' art. "Challenging" is not the adjective that would have been used by Labour in opposition to describe the settlement. In essence, challenging means that it will be extremely difficult for police forces to meet their targets with the settlement. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield has already referred to the Police Federation. Other organisations do not describe the settlement as challenging. They use much stronger language.

I should like the Minister to confirm a point of detail, if that is possible; she can certainly do so in her winding-up speech. We have examined the figures and believe that they represent an increase for this year of only£176 million, with the extra £10 million that has been factored into the Home Office press release being forms of grant other than police standard spending.

We believe that that gives an inflated impression of the settlement, which we calculate represents an increase in real terms of only 0.001 per cent--1,000th of 1 per cent.--not the 0.1 per cent. real-terms increase that the £186 million figure would give. Again, there has been manipulation to make the settlement appear better than it is.

When we look at the next few years of settlements, the picture is no rosier. Although the comprehensive spending review is trumpeted in many other service sectors, it does not give a particularly good deal to the police. As I have said, our estimate is that, over the coming years, police numbers will fall yet further under the figures in the CSR.

Mr. Brake: Is my hon. Friend aware that, yesterday, Sir Paul Condon estimated that Metropolitan police numbers would probably fall by about 100 in the next year?

Mr. Allan: As we all know, the Met has taken the brunt of the cuts so far. That further cut will come when we are trying to introduce new measures. We have heard evidence of the things that have happened in New York, where they have been able to increase police numbers and succeed in their aims. It will worry all Londoners to hear that further cuts in the Met are forecast.

We have looked at the things that the police force will face in coming years and will have to cope with. Policing the millennium will obviously be a one-off in the next year, but the pensions issue is an on-going problem. As yet, there is no sign of an ultimate solution. So long as it remains unresolved, it will continue to hit police budgets. I understand that the auditors have expressed significant concern about the level of police budget reserves because they have been spending over and above what they should--in particular, to meet the costs of pensions.

The ability to put in new information technology systems is important. I was interested to hear the Minister refer to his visit to Stonehouse in Gloucestershire to look at some of them, but the response from the chief constable

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of Gloucestershire police in a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) does not paint such a rosy picture on what it is able to do. He says:

    "The latest settlement is a very tough one for the Gloucestershire Constabulary. We have been allocated substantially less money than we had feared we would be allocated."

He says that there are severe funding problems in Gloucestershire, so at the same time as we hear praise for those exciting new initiatives--we all want to see them happen and succeed--practitioners on the ground tell us that it is a difficult settlement. We have to ask how far they can continue to innovate given such funding pressures.

We are concerned about the transfer of costs from central Government to the local taxpayer. Again, the Labour party in opposition was robust on the issue, accusing the previous Government of a con when they announced settlements that increased the standard spending assessment for the police, but kept the police grant increase relatively low, so that the costs were passed on to the taxpayer.

Again, the chief constable of Gloucestershire police says that it will need a significant increase in its council tax contribution in the precepts--he talks about a 22 per cent. increase--to recover all the funds, which it is entitled to do. The Government need to be more explicit about who is actually paying for the settlement and about the fact that there will be an increase in taxation locally, which should not be hidden by the fact that they can say that general taxation nationally has not been increased, so taxes have not gone up. The Conservatives tried local tax increases year on year, and the Labour party in opposition rightly attacked them for it, yet we hear silence on the issue when it comes to this year's settlement.

I refer to those who have criticised the settlement. The Association of Chief Police Officers was robust on the issue:

The association is not talking about administration or back-room staff. I do not think that it is talking about traffic wardens putting tickets on cars. It is talking about front-line policing services. ACPO believes that cuts there may be the consequence of the settlement.

Again, the Association of Police Authorities, which does much work in the sector, has been clear about its view:

With all the pressures that I have talked about, forces need twice the settlement that they have been given. Costs that simply cannot be avoided--police pay and pensions--are not covered by the latest settlement. The Association of Police Authorities, which has to set the budgets and which has the greatest in-depth knowledge of how police budgets work, is making a clear statement that the settlement is not enough.

The police have a vital role to play in fighting both crime and the fear of crime. We have been clear about the role of police officers on the beat in combating fear of crime. We believe that the Government share our

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objective of combating fear of crime. We wholeheartedly support some of the developments recently through the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, local policing audits--the crime audits--and local community safety plans, which are wonderful innovations, but we want the police to have the resources to implement them. Our greatest fear is that public expectation has been built up by the Government and that the Government are prepared to will the ends but not the means to support the police. On that basis, we feel unable to support the police settlement.

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