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2.38 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I welcome the Minister to this important annual debate. This is the first time that he has spoken in it on behalf of the Government. I apologise to him because he had to suffer me this morning upstairs in the Committee considering the Terrorism Bill and he now suffers me here discussing police matters. At least we are both involved in important business.

I wish the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) well in his new responsibilities and I welcome his successor, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). I hope that he does not suffer the same fate as another previous Conservative candidate who stood against me in Bermondsey and then went on to slightly more profitable fields, representing Harrow, West and being promoted within his party before disappearing almost as suddenly. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that it is only a rumour that the Government are in power, no wonder his party is not doing very well.

The Liberal Democrats echo without qualification the tribute that the Minister paid at the start of his speech. Like him, I visit police forces and officers throughout the country. One of my most impressive duties since taking on this job in October was to attend the police constable of the year award ceremony last autumn at St. James's palace, also attended by the Prince of Wales. Each force selected one person and there was then a selection from around the country. Last year's award was won by an officer from Bedfordshire policing in Luton. He is a white police officer policing in a multiracial area and was commended by all sectors of the community, not least the minority ethnic communities, for his excellent community policing. In the previous year, the award was won by a police officer from Northern Ireland. It is obvious how widely valued the police service is.

This will be the last debate held during the time that the Metropolitan police force has been responsible for its larger area. When police authority responsibilities go from the Home Office, and the Home Secretary personally, to a Londonwide government--something many of us welcome--the boundaries will become the logical boundaries around Greater London. I thank the Met for the work that it has done in its extended area over the years. The force has done a good job, as has been recognised by local communities. The boundaries are being changed not because of complaints, but because it is logical.

We also wish the new Commissioner well, and we hope that he succeeds in his ambitions and objectives. He wrote to many Members to set out what he planned to do, and

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we hope to have the opportunity soon to talk to him. We thank his predecessor for much good work over many years.

Given the events of less than a week ago in Cheltenham, I would like to pay particular tribute to Gloucestershire police on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and our councillors, some of whom are on the police authority for Gloucestershire. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will also have heard that they did an excellent job, as would be expected. We are all conscious of the obligation that we owe to them.

I share the view that we need to strengthen the national forces--the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the national crime squad. I look forward to talking to the Minister before the election about ideas that we are formulating on how we can build up the profile of the national service to deal with national responsibilities. I share the Minister's implied views on that matter.

It is clear that a new communications system is needed to give the efficiency that we ask for. I have had informal and formal representations that some of the technology that the police work with is not 2000 technology--nor is it even 19-something technology. I have seen it work, and I have seen it not work. The amount of technology downtime that hampers the police is frustrating.

The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said that of course police numbers were not everything, and that crime figures are important. Here there is a difference of view between the Opposition and the Government. Although police numbers are not everything, the numbers of police officers have a direct implication on the ability of the police service to do its job. Nurses are not everything in the health service; however, the fewer nurses there are, the fewer beds we have, and the fewer beds we have, the fewer people we can treat. The fewer people we can treat, the less likely the health service is to do the work demanded of it.

The more good and competent officers we have, the more likely we are not just to reduce crime, but to increase clear-up rates--which, in some areas, are still low. In some areas of Northern Ireland, clear-up rates are very low, and in some areas covered by the Met the rates are far lower than our constituents want.

The Minister referred to the sparsity factor, and it is not just those of us who represent urban seats who understand that a conclusion is needed to this debate. I understand that it is better to have a comprehensive review across Government of the formula for allocating money to local authorities and police. However, there has long been dissatisfaction across the country with the formula.

One of the frustrations is that the recipients--in this case, the police authorities--are not able to agree what the formula should be. If they cannot agree, the matter comes to Ministers. If we had a sort of papal conclave to come up with a formula, there would have to be a compromise. I have a London caveat to add to that, but I hope that we will not have many more years of Ministers saying that they are doing the work but that they have not come up with a solution.

One element of the police grant--the 10 per cent. element--is based on the strength of the forces as they were in 1994. That has less logic with every year that

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passes, and it ought to go. If Ministers are clear that everything should not be determined by the numbers of people in police forces, we should not allocate a part of the formula on the number of people in forces in 1994. The police chief constables are now given the responsibility of deciding how to use their money--even more reason why we do not tie the amounts to forces. I should be grateful if the Minister could address whether that matter is on the agenda, and how soon that measure might be abolished.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I said earlier that it remains the Government's intention to get rid of that part of the formula in due course.

Mr. Hughes: Like many ministerial answers, that is helpful as far as it goes, but we would like something more specific than "in due course". However, I am grateful for the Minister's confirmation that that part of the formula is on the way out.

The police complain regularly that one of the implications of the funding formula is that they cannot have the money for capital spend that they would like. Money for capital equipment is often hugely spent. An article in Public Finance, headed "Police funding reaching crisis levels", stated:

There is a major problem and a deficit in that regard.

As police funding largely goes on pay and pensions, one of the complaints will always be when the funding allocation from the Government is not tied to pay increases. If the pay increase goes above inflation or above the percentage police grant increase from the Government, there is less money left. Given that these matters are not negotiated together, as in other public services such as the health service, the formula ought always to take into account--in my view, much more explicitly--the increase in pay. That ought to be effectively ring-fenced as, to a large extent, there can be very little choice. We cannot suddenly lay off a number of police staff, although we can project the number of people due for retirement in the near future.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire did not give my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) the answer that he was hoping for--nor, indeed, the answer that the hon. Gentleman knew would have been expected. The Tory Government did not deliver a removal of or a fundamental change to the pension arrangements. I know that this is now on the new Government's agenda, and I have argued the case often.

Across the emergency services, if we are to make what is given by the Government relate to the service on the ground, we must find a way of taking the pension allocation and the pension spend out of the general spend. The pension bill keeps going up--it is something like 14 per cent. at the moment--and there is no direct account taken of that in the formula. For every £1 million spent on pension entitlements, there is £1 million less to spend on front-line policing. If the allocation does not

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take into account the pension amount, it will be much more fictitious and will not reflect the needs on the ground.

Mr. Heald: I agree that the previous Government changed the formula to some extent, but this Government have been sitting on the report on the issue for almost three years. Is not it time for action?

Mr. Hughes: Absolutely. It is time for action--not only because politicians are calling for it, but because it is a grievance and a source of frustration that it has been on the agenda for so long. I have told Ministers before that I am comfortable with the idea of sitting down with representatives from the Conservative party and other parties and with the Government to try to reach agreement on how to sort out the pensions issue. The longer it passes from desk to desk, the further away a solution is and people become more and more frustrated.

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