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3.17 pm

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): I wish to raise an issue of general public importance that was touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), but in respect of a more specific example. The issue is how police authorities account to the public for the way in which they spend their money and how transparently they do so.

The example involves South Yorkshire police and the on-going reverberations following the Hillsborough disaster, which happened almost 10 years ago; I am sorry that they are still going on, but they are. This is a matter of great importance to the people of Merseyside and my constituents, even though it relates to the South Yorkshire police authority; it also illustrates the more general point of public interest that I wish to raise.

A number of my constituents are families bereaved as a result of the Hillsborough disaster. I know that they feel that, after all this time, the full truth of what happened has still not emerged. They feel that they have still not had the answers to all the questions that they have raised and that they have never received justice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but she may be labouring under a misapprehension as to the scope of the order, which is confined to consideration of the size and distribution of the grants that are proposed in the report before the House. I am not sure that she can extend quite into the area that she thought she might.

Maria Eagle: I hope that I can, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am aware of the scope of the order. Of course, I will be guided by you, if you feel that I cannot, but I felt that I needed to set scene. I wish to discuss the way in which South Yorkshire police authority is spending its grant and the value for money that that spending represents. If you wish, I could move straight on to that, although, without a little background. hon. Members may find it a little more difficult to follow my points. Obviously, I am willing to be guided by you.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but she must keep within the spirit and scope of the debate. She can give a short preface to the point, but then I must require her to come well within the terms of the order.

Maria Eagle: I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Following the scrutiny of the evidence surrounding the Hillsborough disaster, a vast volume of documentation was placed in the Library. As a result of information arising out of that documentation, the families of the

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victims decided that they wanted to conduct some private prosecutions of retired officers, Mr. Duckenfield and Mr. Murray, of South Yorkshire police--now long retired. I want to raise the way in which the defence of those cases is being funded by South Yorkshire police, whether it is transparent and whether it is an effective use of money.

Those two defendants have the same rights to a proper defence as anyone else accused of criminal offences, funded publicly if that is necessary. The legal aid fund exists to facilitate just such cases. Also, I have no objection to the general policy operated by most police authorities. They take the view that it is proper to spend some of the money allocated to them in their grant to fund, in appropriate circumstances, the defence of police officers accused of criminal offences. I am aware that there is Home Office guidance in relation to just that issue, considering when and whether funding of that nature should be provided. It is for the chief constable to decide whether it should. We can all think of circumstances in which the funds should be provided--for example, when an officer is accused of a criminal assault when making an arrest and is then pursued by private prosecution. There are some clear cases on which we could all agree, but there are some circumstances in which the money should not be provided.

In this case, the officers concerned retired on health grounds. In one case there were serious outstanding disciplinary offences and, in the other, the disciplinary offences were dropped because of the retirement of the other officer. The officers concerned and the force were severely criticised by Lord Taylor in the public inquiry following the disaster. He said that the main cause of the disaster was a loss of police control.

As a result of the retirements, nobody within the police force was ever held to account for that loss of control. That is one of the main reasons why the families concerned still feel a grievance.

I recognise that some hon. Members may disagree with me and that there are arguments on both sides about whether funding should be forthcoming, even though we may all agree that there are some circumstances in which it should. If there is a decision to provide funding in such a case, it has implications. The funding as it appears to have been granted in this case is without limit. The force has made it clear that it intends to fund the defence right through to the final trial. The funding has been provided without proper review or checks for value for money being put in place. It seems to have priority over all other policing issues. The many members of the Bar who were referred to earlier could attest to the fact that the final cost could be millions of pounds. I am not exaggerating. I am not a member of the Bar, but--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have given the hon. Lady enough scope. She must now come to the substance of the matter before the House, which is the size and distribution of the grant to police forces for the coming year.

Maria Eagle: My point is that, potentially, millions of pounds could be spent on those cases with no checks having been put in place, despite the fact that South Yorkshire police authority has written to the Home Office in respect of the adequacy of its funding for the coming year.

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I have a written answer which suggests that there has been a letter from the clerk to the South Yorkshire police authority raising a number of issues about the proposed funding settlement for the following year. That is in spite of the fact that the funds seem to have been provided without any proper checks or balances.

I wrote to ask about any checks being placed on the potential spending by South Yorkshire police authority. I asked what procedures the authority and the force had put in place to ensure that the funds were spent appropriately and to ensure that they represented good value for money. I asked when the arrangements would be reviewed, given the open-ended nature of the commitment. I received a reply from the assistant chief constable which referred me to the clerk and treasurer of the police authority. Unfortunately, the reply from the police authority answers none of the questions that I raised.

I hope that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) will be able to refer to my points, at least in part, in her reply to the debate. Can she tell me how the Government can be assured that the police authority is spending its money appropriately and achieving value for money, since it has undertaken such an open-ended commitment while seeking further funds from the Government in order to carry out its basic duty, which is to provide policing services to south Yorkshire?

3.25 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): My constituency featured heavily in the Christmas television schedules in relation to crime and the police because the Christmas edition of the long-running and excellent series "The Bill" was shot on Orpington high street. If that was the only connection that my constituency had with the police, my constituents and I would be delighted. My constituents were thrilled to have the leading actors in the high street for quite some time.

Of course, even in leafy Orpington, there is theft, burglary, violence and bad behaviour, as there is in every other constituency in the country. My constituents have been extremely concerned about the number of recent incidents, and many elderly residents, in particular, are concerned about the level of crime.

I have two concerns. First, after several years of real progress in combating crime in Orpington and Bromley more generally, that great improvement seems to be being reversed. The figures for last year, which have only just been released, show an increase in crime, even in the Bromley division of the London area. It is a matter of great concern that things have suddenly begun to unravel in entirely the wrong direction.

Secondly, police resources to deal with the increase in crime are being cut. As we know, the settlement for the Metropolitan division shows a cash increase of 1.7 per cent. That is not much for a cash increase. The real figure shows a substantial decrease after taking into account necessary increases in salaries, pensions and so on. We are facing not stability, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), but a decrease in the provision for my area.

This year--not just next year--the manpower available to the Bromley division decreased by 10. Over London as a whole, the number of police has decreased by 571 since

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the general election. During the debate, the Liberal Democrat spokesman said that it is expected to decline by a further 100 over the next 12 months. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) pointed out in an article in the Evening Standard only yesterday that the age profile of the Metropolitan police is such that the number leaving the force over the next few years will increase considerably. That, too, poses a potential crisis in London. All those factors are having an effect and are damaging people's confidence in the ability of the police to deal with crime effectively.

There has been a major reorganisation in my area over the past two or three years. It is not a question of efficiency having been ignored and now suddenly being taken into account. That reorganisation affected all sectors of my constituency and Bromley more generally and we hoped that it would lead to more efficient situation for the police in which they could settle down and operate for some time with no further exhortations to reorganise even more.

This is a short debate and we will not all get an opportunity to speak. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) want to be associated with my remarks.

The current situation, together with the new settlement, will lead to a further reduction in the number of police in the Bromley area. We expect to lose another 10 officers in addition to the 10 that will have been lost by the end of March. Moreover, we are facing the possible closure of four police stations. We believe that two of those police stations, one in my constituency at Biggin Hill and one in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, are almost certain to close. Furthermore, we expect additional police station closures, including one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham and another in my own constituency, at St. Mary Cray.

The possibility of closing the St. Mary Cray station is very distressing, as it was opened in only 1992, after a long public campaign by me, the local newspaper and local councillors, to their credit. So, in 1992, we managed to obtain a new police station at St. Mary Cray; seven years later, we are faced with the closure of that self-same station. Closures are possible even in Bromley, which has hitherto been in a well-resourced part of London.

The Minister will understand the dismay with which Opposition Members are greeting the Government's proposed settlement. Under the previous, Conservative Government, police resources, new police stations and police numbers all increased. Now, within 18 months of a Labour Government being elected, we are faced with the possibility of four police station closures, fewer police officers and an increase in crime. That is the reality facing Bromley.

I am concerned also about the effect of the Government's changes on the community's institutional structures supporting efforts to deal with crime. As the Minister rightly said, fighting crime is a matter not only for police but for local authorities and local people. The effort to develop community action has been made faithfully for many years, at the behest of successive Governments, and has done well in Bromley.

The focus of efforts to build a partnership in Bromley has been the Bromley police-community liaison group, which meets regularly. I attend its meetings, as do, my

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colleagues, local councillors and local people. The mood at its meetings has been grim. I received a report of the most recent meeting from a resident whom I know well, who is a responsible and public-minded person who does not reach judgments lightly. He said that

    "Overall the members of the public are not happy with the way the Group runs."

He was referring to the liaison group, and continued:

    "While the police listen to what is said, there is seldom any sort of positive response which we would like . . . It seems that all we can look forward to is a continually diminishing police force even less able to enforce all the laws and discharge matters which they, and no one else, currently have responsibility for."

The liaison group notes, among other things, that people are less willing than they were to turn out for consultative meetings. People no longer see the point of the meetings, at which police listen politely and all local concerns are voiced, but after which nothing happens. Police, quite frankly, say that they do not have the resources to respond to local concerns. That is the reality of life on the ground floor.

I can only say to the Minister that the situation in my constituency paints a grim picture that does not offer much hope. I strongly support my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) in opposing the motion.

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