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Mr. Simon Hughes: I intervene specifically on London matters. We have seen the appointment of the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, who has taken over this week. Will the Minister confirm that both the

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outgoing and incoming Commissioners have made the strongest representations to Ministers that, at the level at which the Met is funded for the foreseeable future, it is likely that there will be a considerable reduction in the numbers of people who are able to serve it, in both civilian and uniform capacities? The implication is that, if there is a wish to keep up the service, even though the numbers of police officers may be falling, the local authorities that will be precepted to raise money for the Met will see significant increases in the sums that they are asked to pass on to London taxpayers and ratepayers.

Mr. Clarke: I can confirm that both the previous and current Commissioners have been strong and vigorous in making the case for proper funding for the London force, as they properly should. The Government believe that they have taken serious consideration of the representations that they have received, given the figures that I am announcing. The Metropolitan police, along with other forces, are bidding for resources from the crime fighting fund, for example. That, too, will help the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes. Sir John Stevens has already shown outstanding leadership in trying to address these issues. I think that we shall see significant changes, which will be welcome, certainly to all London Members.

The Metropolitan police service needs a reasonable budget increase to prevent significant reductions in police numbers in London. The proposed cash increase is not excessive, at about 2 per cent. above the comparable figure for 1999-2000. About 87 per cent. of MPS funding comes from central Government, with only about 13 per cent. accounted for by council tax. That is below the average of 15.2 per cent. for police authorities in Britain. The MPS is already on target to deliver efficiency savings of more than 2 per cent., which is around £35 million.

Another major development in policing in the next financial year will be the creation of a new police authority in London.

Mr. Heald: I am grateful to the Minister, who has been generous in giving way. Is it right that, by the end of March 2000, the Metropolitan police will be 400 officers under strength? If the hon. Gentleman can confirm that, will he explain why that is?

Mr. Clarke: I cannot confirm at the Dispatch Box the specific figure to which the hon. Gentleman refers. However, I can confirm, as I did earlier, that the Metropolitan police force is under serious pressure on numbers. There were substantial reductions during the final period of the Conservative Government--[Interruption.] There were substantial reductions under the last period of the Conservative Government, and the Metropolitan police is now trying to stabilise the position. That is precisely the subject of the conversations to which I referred earlier, between the Commissioner, the force and the Home Office.

Another major development in policing in the next financial year will be the creation of a new police authority in London--the Metropolitan Police Authority. With the arrival of the MPA, arrangements for the policing of London will be brought more closely into line with arrangements elsewhere. As from July, there will be an independent body of 23 members, drawn from the London Assembly, the magistracy and other walks of life,

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who will be responsible for securing an efficient and effective police service within the Metropolitan police district.

I look forward to the new Commissioner and police authority working together constructively to build on the existing strengths of the Met and to improve the links with the communities that it serves.

I turn to the main issues that I heard and discussed during representations on the settlement. As I said earlier, five main issues arose: the problems of policing sparsely populated rural areas; the continuation of the old force establishment component in the formula; the costs of the new national radio communications service; the costs of police pensions; and national security policing.

On sparsity, as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham noted in his intervention, we commissioned independent research in 1998 to try to nail once and for all the question of whether extra costs were involved in policing sparsely populated rural areas. The research study was finalised last year. It found that additional costs were, indeed, incurred in policing such areas.

I emphasise that the report was not about police numbers; it was about the costs of policing in rural areas. A copy of the full report and the executive summary was put in the House Library in November and circulated to police authorities and chief constables. The report recommended that the police funding formula be changed to reflect the additional costs--that is, by switching some funding from the metropolitan forces to the shire county forces.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in November that he did not intend to change the funding formula for 2000-01 because of the moratorium on changes to the grant distribution system for local authorities and police authorities, pending a wide-ranging review announced by the Deputy Prime Minister in July 1998.

As I said earlier, I met a number of delegations, including one from all the authorities in sparsely populated areas, and I received individual representations from Members of Parliament, chief constables and police authorities in areas of sparsity. I recognise that my right hon. Friend's decision not to change the funding formula was a disappointment for the forces for which rural sparsity is a significant factor.

As I said to the delegations, I understand and sympathise with their concerns, but I emphasise to the House, as I emphasised at those meetings, that we are considering the position. We will consider the position again fully next year. I think that the force of the argument is well understood.

Mr. Hogg: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: I am happy to take interventions on this particular point, as I shall not return to it later in my remarks.

Mr. Hogg: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has already given way to me once, and I acknowledge that fact.

In the case of Lincolnshire, the report recommends a change that would increase the number of police men by 50 for the county. Does the Minister accept the principle

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of changing the formula to take account of sparsity, or is his hesitation simply due to lack of money? I understand that money is a problem, but I should like to know whether he accepts the principle and the line of the recommendations, and whether his inability to give a commitment today is due essentially to his inability to allocate money for that purpose.

Mr. Clarke: I am unable to give a commitment today because of the moratorium on changes to the grant distribution system for local authorities and police authorities while the review announced by the Deputy Prime Minister is taking place. It is not possible--or not easy, at any rate--to make changes to one aspect without looking across the whole range.

For my part, I believe that the argument of the sparsity report is well made and widely accepted. It was a factual research study, which examined the real costs of policing in sparsely populated rural areas. I am familiar with the matter from my own constituency, which, although not a rural area, is in a rural county. Those issues are well understood.

The issue is the cost of rural policing, not police numbers specifically. I understand, of course, that there are relationships and knock-ons in the way that those factors operate, but the key argument is about the additional costs of rural policing, and that is what the research report addresses.

Mr. Brady: I have no difficulty with giving sparse areas extra resources. However, if I understood the Minister correctly, he suggested that resources should be transferred from metropolitan areas to sparsely populated rural areas. That is a cause for anxiety, especially when the Government's figures show that crime is increasing most rapidly in metropolitan areas.

Mr. Clarke: I did not say that there would be a direct transfer. I was making the obvious point that, in a zero-sum game, increasing resources for a specific area has implications for other areas. Two serious policy considerations weigh against the sparsity argument. First, as the hon. Gentleman said, despite anxiety about crime in rural areas, there is significantly more crime in urban areas, and resources have been focused there. Crime levels are significantly higher in Norwich in my constituency than in the rural parts of the county, despite the fears that exist there.

The second factor is relevant to our debate. Urban forces argue, with justification, that policing densely populated urban areas involves specific costs. It is an example of the interplay of arguments and the reason for not making a move in one direction outside the context of the overall review. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's review is so important. I did not suggest that there was a specific shift from urban to rural areas, but I acknowledge that there is a debate.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): What should police authorities do about council tax payers, in view of the major impact of the review on them? In Dorset, council tax payers pay a higher proportion of the police bill than in any other county or authority in the country. The figure approaches 30 per cent. Does the Minister recommend that the police authority reduce its costs until

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the Government issue a fair grant settlement, or should the additional burden be imposed on a population comprised largely of pensioners?

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