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Mr. David Heath: My hon. Friend is right in what he says about the grievance about pensions and the squeeze that funding them puts on police authority budgets. The problem is that each year the problem is not addressed, the difficulty of addressing it becomes greater. The only tenable long-term solution is a funded scheme. The longer that is delayed, the greater the costs become. I can understand Ministers' difficulty, but somebody must grasp the nettle.

Mr. Hughes: I could not have put it better. [Interruption.] I do not necessarily agree with everything my hon. Friend says, but on this occasion he was word perfect.

Police officers often point out to me that the more successful their police force is in bringing crime figures down, the more it is penalised in its financial allocation. We must avoid penalising successful forces which use their resources efficiently and deliver the outputs--to use the jargon--that everyone wants. Such forces can be in the suburbs, such as the local force of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), in an inner-city constituency such as mine, where crime levels are high, or in a rural area, such as those which my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome and for Taunton (Jackie Ballard) represent. It should be a given that successful policing, producing fewer crimes and higher clear-up rates, is not penalised by fewer resources.

The Liberal Democrats will vote against the Government motions at 4 o'clock because, unfortunately, the Government are for the third time proposing a funding settlement that will mean less money will be spent on the police than in the year before Labour came to office. I have obtained the figures from the Library. In the first year the Government inherited a fall of 0.8 per cent. Funding went up 0.3 per cent. in the second year and up 0.2 per cent in the third year. Even my elementary maths is sufficient to work out that that means a net fall of 0.3 per cent. over the three years. It is true, as the Minister pointed out, that the figures show that the level will start to pick up after that, but the grant settlement for next year that we are being asked to approve this afternoon will provide less money in real terms for the police from central Government than was the case three years ago.

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The comparison is simple and has been provided by the Association of Police Authorities. The education settlement for the coming year will increase by 8.7 per cent, the social services settlement by 5.6 per cent., and the fire service settlement by 3.5 per cent.--only the police settlement increase is below 3 per cent., with a pre-inflation level of 2.9 per cent and a post-inflation figure of 0.2 per cent. That is not acceptable, given the pressures the police are under.

Many authorities have had a decrease in real terms this year, if pensions are removed from the equation. They include Bedfordshire, City of London, Cleveland, Cumbria, Essex, Hertfordshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Merseyside, Sussex, Warwickshire, West Mercia, West Midlands and West Yorkshire. The Library's figures for the settlement proposed for the coming year show that some forces will be specifically penalised. The City of London force will have a real-terms cut for the third year in a row. The Gloucestershire police--sadly, in the light of the tribute we have paid to them--will have a real-terms decrease for the fourth year in a row, with a 0.6 decrease in the coming year, having had a 0.9 decrease in the year just finishing. The North Wales police--the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has just left his place--will have a decrease after a couple of years of small increases, and the South Wales police will also have a decrease. As a whole, the police in Wales will have exactly the same amount, neither an increase nor a decrease. In those four specific force areas, the financial position will be worse than elsewhere.

What do the figures mean for police numbers? On that point, there is no dispute between the Conservatives and ourselves because the Library figures are clear. The police service numbers inherited across England and Wales were 127,158. The figures for March 1999 were 126,096. Pending the announcement of the latest figures, the reduction is 1,062. The argument about the 5,000 extra still hinges on the fact that that figure must also take account of the reduction so far and the number of officers retiring or leaving the force. In the same period, we have also seen a reduction of 3,390 in the number of special constables.

The experience of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington in west London is replicated throughout the Metropolitan area, just as it is in many other areas of the country. I know what has happened in my local authority better than in others, but in Islington--where the Liberal Democrats have just taken control of the council--the number of police in the Holloway area has fallen from 245 to 226, and has fallen from 284 in Islington. My local authority of Southwark, south of the river, has seen police numbers fall from 874 to 851 in the past year. In Bromley, an outer London borough, police numbers have fallen from 442 to 432, and in Kingston they have fallen from 329 to 325.

All over the place, police numbers have fallen and police stations have been closed. We can argue about whether every police station is justified, but the public need to have a police presence, and fewer police officers make it less easy to deal with crime and the fear of crime.

My final point concerns the famous crime fighting fund. In an answer I was given on Tuesday this week by the Minister--which the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire has obviously also seen--it was confirmed that 43 forces have bid for the £35 million available. The total number of officers bid for was 2,908, which would

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cost more than £96 million, so only about a third of every bid will be satisfied. For example, Avon and Somerset bid for 65 officers, but if its bid is successful it may get only 23. The Metropolitan police force bid for 600, but it may get only 216. The Sussex bid was for 45, but only 16 may be granted.

We have had an allocation of £35 million for next year. That will not be enough over three years to deliver 5,000 officers unless it is doubled in the following two years, and will be enough to keep those officers only if we have the additional money in subsequent years as well. Money at the beginning is sufficient only to bring them in, not to keep them there. I hope that the Government will realise that £35 million--interestingly, they said that that was the extra cost of policing the millennium--is hardly a large additional sum.

Police numbers will be down in the coming year; there will be fewer police stations; and the council tax police precept that our constituents have to pay will be higher. People will pay more and get less. To follow up something that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire quoted, the police and many of the public feel that the Government are being too tough on the police and far too tough on police funding. We need more of both, and very soon.

3.1 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I welcome the relatively generous settlement for Derbyshire, which did not appear on the list that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) gave. One reason for that is the correction, not before time, of a pension error, but the settlement was fairly generous in any case.

We still have about 250 officers fewer than the average for a county force. The force is thinly stretched at any time, but last year, with three murder inquiries running concurrently and the call on specialist officers hitting some sections disproportionately--including the one that covers a substantial part of my constituency--there was an incredible burden.

For some time, an area of about 70 square miles, with a population of about 60,000, was policed on a shift basis by only three or four officers. It is scarcely surprising that things became very difficult from time to time. Thankfully, the area is generally extremely law-abiding, but some parts of it, including Linton and Newhall, have faced short-term increases in crime that have alarmed local people significantly.

The authority has applied for a share of the crime fighting fund, and I have already written to my hon. Friend the Minister expressing strong support for that bid. If it were granted in full over the full three-year period, the force would just about reach the average strength of a county force; but the likelihood of that is perhaps remote if the funding figure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave at the Labour party conference last year is adhered to. There is an opportunity to review that figure in the light of the bids that have been received.

With the full increase, the Swadlincote section, which serves the bulk of my constituency, could increase the team available to fight and prevent crime by seven or eight officers. That may not seem a great number, but it would make a vast difference to the number of times one saw a uniformed officer in one of my villages.

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I have regular meetings with my police inspector, and I expect him to bring me up to date on a variety of local issues when we meet tomorrow, but I know already that the difficulty in responding to local pressures is acute. The increase would make a vast difference to his ability to direct officers to deal with crime, whether in Swadlincote town centre--where local shopkeepers and residents have expressed concerns--or in the outlying villages. The two other sections serving my constituency would have roughly equivalent increases. One of them covers a significant rural area as well as part of the city of Derby. Let us hope that the bid is viewed favourably.

The public safety radio communications service will be a welcome enhancement to the ability of the police to respond to crime and communicate about it. I fully endorse the project, but its cost is substantial: in Derbyshire, the additional revenue element of more than £2 million would cost the equivalent of about 80 officers a year.

I noted what the Minister said about forces' tendency to cite officer equivalents for every cost with which they are laden, but it is none the less a convenient shorthand way of looking at a cost. The capital cost, to which the county would have to contribute, is well beyond the capital resources that have thus far been given to the county to meet its obligations, so it will have to continue to make a contribution to capital from revenue funding, as it has done for some time.

In the year in which that contribution was made, there would be a further hit of about £2 million, which would once again take out about 70 or 80 officers. It has been said that forces will be decimated if the technology is introduced without further thought about the cost implications and on-going revenue commitments. I would not use the word "decimated" in the Latin sense, but it would certainly have a substantial impact on my force's ability to deliver the services that my constituents expect. The reductions cannot be accepted and we require additional resources to fund that valuable increase in service.

Derbyshire has sought to increase the local share of the cost of policing. I am probably unusual--I am happy to admit it publicly--in having written to my police authority last year urging it to use the opportunity of the removal of capping substantially to increase its precept to my constituents. It took my advice in spades and introduced a swingeing increase, but one that was at least understood and recognised as a step towards improving the quality of local policing by people whom I have met who read their council tax bills with some attention.

There are limits to the ability of local citizens to bear that extra burden and, presumably, to the Government's tolerance of the wholesale desire to ignore the spending guidelines and suggestions on what level of council tax increases might be acceptable. Last year, the authority did not receive a yellow card, and I hope that the same indulgence will be given this year, but one must recognise the limits of that source of funding.

The force has been historically underfunded. It seems that best value was invented here. It has committed itself repeatedly to finding ways of squeezing every ounce of fat out of the service. That is one of the difficulties of imposing savings targets on services in a blanket fashion. No doubt many police authorities have not had to go through the same exercises that Derbyshire had to

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go through in the 1990s, yet the same broad savings targets that are sought from Derbyshire are sought from them. That is seen as unfair, bearing in mind what we have gone through.

The Derbyshire force has an excellent record in many respects. Incidentally, in the most recent year, crime overall in Derbyshire fell marginally and has certainly fallen since the election. The force is still held in high regard, although many people wish that they saw more of the police officers so that they could express that high regard more freely.

Derbyshire police authority has led the way in a variety of areas. It was one of the first in the country, if not the first, to commit itself to DNA tracing, for example, which led to a conviction. Civilianisation has proceeded apace and there have been strong new controls on sickness and medical retirement. The force also has a strong commitment, led by the chief constable, to increasing representation from our minority communities. The chief constable, who served in other ways last year, made strong and supportive comments on the Lawrence inquiry and the responsibilities of the police service in that regard. He leads from the front in Derbyshire as well, and has earned great respect on that count.

I look forward to a positive response from the Government to the force's bid regarding the crime fighting fund, and a review of the Government contribution to the public safety radio communications service. I welcome unreservedly, and wish to see through to completion, the Government's statement that the removal of the establishment element of the funding formula is imminent.


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