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3.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey): This has been an interesting and informative debate, although it has been slightly heated at times from the contributions of those on the Opposition Front Bench. We have heard a wide range

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of contributions, giving many examples of good practice in police forces throughout the country. This is an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members from across England and Wales to make their views known, as is right and proper. They are close to their local police force. They know what their officers are thinking and want to make those views known. I should like to respond to the questions that have been raised.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Kate Hoey: Not just at the moment. Let me get some way into my speech. I do not have a lot of time.

The support for local police forces should not always be uncritical. It was interesting to hear some hon. Members recognise that perhaps the police had been insulated from the pressure that has been put on other parts of the public sector.

The figures in the report represent a fair settlement for the police in 1999-2000--fair but challenging. We have heard about the financial pressures that individual police authorities are facing. I fully accept that some authorities have fared better than others. That is one of the effects of the funding formula that we inherited from the Conservatives. We continue to refine it and it now commands general acceptance in the police service. It is based on the relative needs of forces, so those faring less well can be reassured that a disappointing settlement in comparison with that of a neighbouring force is down to objective evidence, not the whim of Ministers.

We have allowed the formula to operate objectively without political interference or tinkering and resisted the temptation to interfere with it or override it to produce results that Ministers might find more attractive for their area. The Metropolitan police--my local force and that of my hon. Friend the Minister--will get a funding increase of 1.7 per cent. next year, which is well below the national average. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's local police in Lancashire will get a funding increase of 1.9 per cent., which is again below the average. We have been scrupulous in avoiding subjective intervention in allocations to individual police authorities.

The funding provided by central Government is not the end of the story. Forces will have more money at their disposal if they improve their performance and efficiency. Efficiency savings of 2 per cent. across total police authority spending represent about £140 million in cash terms--a significant sum by any standard. As we have heard already, the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary have pointed to areas where significant improvements can be made, including better management of sickness or medical retirements and better use of assets. Changes in the rules on capital receipts mean that, for the first time, police authorities can reinvest in capital projects all that they generate from the sale of surplus assets.

Police authorities can also consider increasing their spending a little more through the council tax. Unlike in previous years, they are not constricted by crude and universal capping limits.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister will be aware that the Gloucestershire police had one of the lowest settlements--an increase of only 1.4 per cent. Recently,

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the chief constable wrote to me saying that, in real terms, that represents a cut of 4 per cent. in its budget and that making that up fully would involve an increase in the council tax precept for the police of a staggering 27 per cent. I have written to the Minister--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has pushed the boat out too far.

Kate Hoey: If the hon. Gentleman has written to me, I certainly have not received his letter. However, only yesterday, my hon. Friend the Minister met the deputy chief constable, who is quite confident that the police will be able to manage on this year's difficult but challenging settlement.

As I mentioned, there will be no capping. However, the Home Secretary expects police authorities to balance the needs of the force for extra resources with the interests of local council tax payers and set budgets that are responsible, prudent and do not impose excessive increases in council tax. The Home Secretary has asked me to point out that we shall be monitoring the position closely.

Another innovation for next year is the link between the settlement and our commitment to improving police efficiency. We have set all police forces a target of 2 per cent. efficiency gains year on year. They will then be able to plough the money back into front-line policing. Hon. Members should understand that, for the first time, there is a real incentive to meet this modest target.

Mr. Allan: The Minister gave us an assurance that in setting the budget using the formula, no account was taken of the political make-up of a particular area. Can she give us the same assurance in respect of the capping process--that the political complexion of an area will not affect the Government's consideration of whether or not to lift a cap?

Kate Hoey: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should even think that there is any political consideration in the capping formula.

I shall now respond to some of the specific points that were raised in the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies)--I have been practising pronouncing the name of his constituency, but I am not sure whether I have got it right--talked about his local police force in Dyfed Powys. He made an interesting speech, but he did not mention that his local police force has the lowest crime rate in the country and should be congratulated. It also has the highest percentage of crimes detected, and that is an excellent achievement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, the previous Home Office Minister, listened to the concerns of the four Welsh forces and found additional money for them. As a result, the Dyfed-Powys force will receive an increase of 1.2 per cent. instead of 0.8 per cent. and that is a positive step. My right hon. Friend also asked about the 2 per cent. efficiency target. If his force were to achieve that target, it would have an extra £1 million to reinvest.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Sir D. Madel) gave us a sincere presentation of the particular difficulties affecting Bedfordshire that he has discussed with my hon Friend the Minister of State. Bedfordshire has achieved success in fighting crime, although it has

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been affected by the formula. As I said, a formula means that some forces fare worse than others. However, the formula is based on population. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the extra housing that is being built in his area. The formula is population based and so there is no doubt that any increase in the population will be reflected in the allocation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) made a positive speech recognising that police forces sometimes need to be challenged. She raised questions about how the police work and whether more imaginative ways of working--and indeed the role of the police--should be examined. She saw what the Opposition did not see--that there needs to be a change in culture and we all have to work with the police to bring that about. Clearly, if there is mismanagement we shall look into it as it is a serious issue.

As she has done on many occasions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) referred to Hillsborough. I do not want to get into that now, but she asked how we measure whether police grant has been used appropriately. That is a matter for the police authority and the district auditor.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) painted a grim picture of his area. I do not agree. There has been some exaggeration and I am absolutely confident that his area will respond to the settlement.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that tackling crime is not a job for the police alone. In many areas the police are already working in co-operation with local authorities and others to reduce crime. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has provided the police with new powers and opportunities. Working with the local community, they are able to focus responses and target local crime problems. The police are already doing an excellent job. The legislation means that crime can be tackled at its roots, in local communities. The police have a major part to play in that work.

The settlement provides the police service with extra resources to carry on its excellent work in tackling crime and disorder in our towns and cities. It includes efficiency targets that will enable forces to focus their resources on meeting the concerns of local people. The Audit Commission report shows that success in solving crime does not depend solely in the numbers of police officers available. Partnerships, targeted policing, better use of information technology and the efficient use of available resources all have an important part to play in improving police performance.

Both Opposition spokesmen were full of doom and gloom, particularly the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). However, police authorities across the country do not share that view. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no hidden agenda. Our only agenda is to tackle crime effectively. I know that the Opposition have a job to do, but I genuinely wish that they would work with us on that agenda to tackle crime and disorder because that is what the public want. The Government are confident that the police will rise to the challenge--it is a challenge--and show the public that they can deliver an effective, efficient and high-quality service. That is what we expect to happen, so we should like the House to support the settlement today.

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Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 282, Noes 143.

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