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Fiona Mactaggart: Does my hon. Friend share my anger at the low number of police per 100,000 people in Slough? The force covers a large area, but it is not just a rural force, as it also has to cover the urban area of Slough. The basic crime unit family includes other bits of police forces, all of which are in the Metropolitan police area in inner London.

Mr. Salter: My hon. Friend is right. Slough has all London's policing problems, yet it does not get the resources it needs. That is having a knock-on effect on neighbouring authorities. There are fundamental flaws in the way the crime unit families are constructed, in the notion of operational independence versus budgetary independence, and in resource allocation.

I turn now to the standstill—or modest increase—in police numbers over the past 10 years. Figures provided by the chief constable of the Thames Valley force—not by the Home Office, or Millbank—do not make good reading for Conservative Members. They show that on 31 March 1997, the force had a total of 3,695 officers, an all-time low. That was under a Conservative Government. Under the Labour Government, the force reached an all-time high of 3,765, although that is nothing to boast about. As a result of the crime fighting fund, the force now has 0.5 of an officer less than in 1999. The fund therefore has achieved no growth in police numbers at all.

The allocation of these meagre resources to the Thames Valley force has had an effect in the area. Admittedly, the boundaries involved have changed slightly in the period to which I want to refer, but the scale of the problem remains the same for Slough. In 1990, it had 585 officers, whereas now it has 237. Reading had 526 officers in 1990, and that number has fallen to 342.

The total resource allocation formula used to arrive at the figures ripped off Reading and Slough in a quite disgraceful way. That decision was taken under the

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devolved powers given to the local police authority. I repeat: there is a world of difference between budgetary independence and operational independence.

There are many challenges involved in policing a regional centre. Reading has expanded out of all recognition. I have dug out the figures for crimes committed in the town centre. I assure my right hon. Friend the Minister that many of his constituents shop at the Oracle centre in Reading. We regularly bump into people from Cardiff, Bristol, Banbury and all over the place. We welcome them to our town, but their presence creates policing problems.

Between April 1999 and March 2001, shoplifting in Reading town centre rose by 16 per cent. In the same period, the number of robberies in the town centre rose by 61 per cent., and crimes of violence against the person rose by 60 per cent. There have been massive increases in incidents involving riot, violent disorder and affray in Reading, with the figure rising from 1,400 in 1998–99 to 3,800 in the last full year.

How does the police funding formula address those issues? The answer is that it fails spectacularly to do so. I accept that no funding formula is perfect, but it would be difficult to devise a system that was less advantageous to towns such as Reading and Slough, which provide a huge range of services for tens of thousands of people who live in, and pay taxes in, communities many miles away.

I took the trouble to dig out the Library notes on the police funding formula. The factors used in the formula are worth quoting, as they include daytime population, resident population, unemployment, household renting, area cost adjustment and built-up road lengths. People asleep in bed or busy at work are not a major factor in the creation of crime, nor are lengths of built-up roads. These funding formula factors do not take into account the fact that in a town such as Reading 20,000 public entertainment licences are granted. Similar figures apply in Slough, Oxford and elsewhere. The night-time economy creates a tremendous strain on the police force.

I am delighted that the working group is meeting to consider the funding formula. I hope that a new formula can be devised and introduced by 2003–04 and that it will take into account the need for the policing requirements of a night-time population to be addressed.

I conclude with a parallel. It is a supreme irony that, prior to becoming Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) was Secretary of State for Education and Employment. In education, the funding formula is very straightforward—the funding follows the pupil. In my town of Reading this year, as a result of boundary changes and other anomalies, we are expecting some 1,400 year 6 pupils to seek secondary education across the boundaries in west Berkshire or Wokingham. There is no problem with that because the funding follows the pupil—how could it be any other way?—yet does the funding follow the policing requirements of the night-time population of Slough or Reading? Does it heck!

I hope that the Minister has found this analysis useful. I look forward to meeting him to discuss the very real policing problems that we have in Reading and Slough and to addressing some of these important issues. It cannot be acceptable for the Government to put money in

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and for my constituents not to see the benefit of the additional resources to which they have contributed in their taxes.

5.21 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury): I hope that the Minister pays particular attention to the speech of the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter). I agree with much of what he said, not least his concern about the haemorrhaging of police officers from the Thames valley area.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome the Home Secretary's police grant allocation to the Thames Valley force, which polices my constituency in north Oxfordshire and Oxfordshire as a whole. The Home Secretary is a generous man. The Thames Valley police will now receive the fifth highest allowance from the Government, an appropriate amount that seemingly reflects the Home Secretary's funding formula of more money to those who need it most. Good stuff. However, it begs the question, what will the Thames Valley police do with the new grant? That is where we encounter a very real problem. The grant looks good on paper and in isolation, but it looks bad when one considers the detail of the Thames Valley's grant in comparison with other forces in England and Wales.

The Thames Valley's resources look meagre. Moreover, given the chronic problems of recruitment and, in particular, retention of police officers in the force. Home Office figures show that police strength within the Thames valley area has fallen year on year since 1997, and I hope that sooner or later the Home Office will wake up to that fact. The Thames Valley simply does not have the police officers to match the aspirations that come with such a grant.

Let us start with the basics of the funding formula for police grants. I alluded earlier to what the police grant report somewhat grandly refers to as the Home Secretary's principal formula. Also like the hon. Member for Reading, West, I have examined the principles behind the formula and have noted two interesting facts. First, paragraph 5.2 rightly says that the main determinants in the principal formula are the resident population and the day-time population. It says that cost adjustments are built into this formula for the socio-economic circumstances and the cost of provision between areas.

I do not dispute that Government principle. There is no doubt that the allocation of police grants should be made on the basis of the area's population demand on police officers and the cost of providing police officers. That principle means that the Thames Valley is allocated one of the country's highest grants.

The second Government principle, which I find interesting, is in paragraph 4.4, which states:

That justification is acceptable when the principle relates to population: there is no doubt that London officers have more people to police. However, the principle is less convincing if applied to the area costs for police officers in London against other forces in the south-east. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens.

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Why do the Government suddenly apply such a principle to police pay only if the officers work in London? It is clear from future funding allocations that the Government are still failing to tackle the core cause of crime in the Thames valley: the failure to recruit and—more important and of greater concern at present—the failure to retain police officers through a serious lack of resources for police pay. It is no good for the Government to trumpet what is after all only a marginal increase in money from the comprehensive spending review when they persistently refuse to recognise the need for additional resources for the south-eastern region.

Thames Valley police officers are in the worst of all possible worlds. Their cost of living, including housing, is high, yet they do not benefit from the additional allowances paid to London police officers. I suspect that almost every force in the country must look more attractive to police officers than the Thames Valley force.

Police officers in the Metropolitan force receive an annual London weighting of £1,773, with an additional London allowance of £1,001 and, on top of that, a further London allowance of as much as £3,327 each year. That means that a police officer in London could earn about £6,000 a year more than a police officer in the Thames valley for doing exactly the same job.

Furthermore, police officers in London also have free transport, so it is not uncommon—I am told by senior police officers in the Thames valley—for Thames Valley officers to see fellow police officers on railway stations on their way to work in London, where they will be paid significantly more, and being given free travel to do it. That is plainly unfair and unjustified.

Police officers in the south-east have to cope with a cost of living that the Government's principle does not seem to take into account when it comes to paying them. Last year, a survey by the Halifax found a massive 17 per cent. increase in house prices in the south-east, but only a 7 per cent. increase in the rest of England and Wales, yet the Government do not pay officers so as to reflect that difference. The Government recognise the "cost of provision" in police grants but completely ignore the same principle—the same costs—when paying police officers.

Moreover, we need to consider the difference in house prices in the south-east compared with London. The Land Registry's latest quarterly survey observes that house prices in London are rising more slowly than those outside the capital in the south-east region. Indeed, the Halifax survey also found that although house prices have risen by an average of £4,000 in London, they have risen by a staggering £26,000 in Oxfordshire over the same period. Why are the Government not funding police officers in north Oxfordshire as adequately as in north Acton? Why do the principles outlined in the report suddenly morph into thin air when it comes to police pay?

It is no wonder that police retention is at an all-time low in the Thames valley. A large number of officers resign for non-medical reasons. The consequence is often all too clear: there are too few officers to police towns such as Banbury and Bicester and the villages in my constituency. In the whole of north Oxfordshire, in towns such as Banbury and in the surrounding villages, there are often no more than four police officers on duty at any one time.

If the Government do not pay police officers in the Thames valley properly, the force will continue to haemorrhage experienced officers to other forces where

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they can either earn more or live for less. London and the east midlands, on the borders of the Thames valley, offer both prospects to police officers, so why should officers come to the Thames valley?

As the hon. Member for Reading, West pointed out, the Thames Valley police force merely acts as an expensive training area for officers who move on. Even more important, when the beat inspector in Banbury sends out a team to police north Oxfordshire, it often includes a large proportion of new recruits. We lack the experience of senior officers who have moved elsewhere.

It was particularly insulting of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), in response to an oral question that I asked on the matter, to claim that Thames Valley officers must be paid less because the Government believe that it reflects

that they face, compared with the circumstances and pressures that they would face if they were doing the same job in other forces around the country. This is nonsense.

The Home Secretary's recent statement on police reform outlined that officers in all forces face the same problems in policing. Surely the fact that the Thames Valley is in the top five police grant receivers based on "resident population" and "socio- economic characteristics" would in itself indicate that police officers working in the area face at least the possibility of more pressure.

I have taken the liberty of leafing through the Home Office's own figures of recorded crime for 2001. They reveal that that possibility is very much a reality. Let us consider violent crime dealt with by each police force over the last year, which is a yardstick that, I hope most hon. Members would agree, presents officers with the "different circumstances and pressures" to which the Under-Secretary was presumably alluding. I found that police officers in the Thames valley had to deal with nearly 15,000 cases of violent crime—the 11th highest figure for the 41 forces. If it is the Government's principle to pay Metropolitan officers more because they deal with more cases of violent crime, why are police officers in north Wales paid the same as Thames Valley officers, when officers in north Wales have to deal with a third of the violent crimes that Thames Valley officers have to? Why is the apparent Government principle of paying less to officers doing a supposedly less important job ignored when it comes to Humberside police officers, who deal with 5,000 fewer violent crimes than those officers who work in the Thames valley?

The House might also like to note that the Halifax building society estimates that the cost of the average property in south Humberside is £46,700, whereas the same property in Oxfordshire would cost £162,450. It is little wonder that police officers are leaving.

It is pretty obvious why north Oxfordshire—and the Thames valley as a whole—continues to lose officers to other forces in England and Wales. Thames Valley police officers deserve sufficient pay to live on so that they can deliver to local people the peace of mind to which they are entitled. It is audacious of the Government to announce in their latest White Paper "Policing a New Century" that

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I should like the House to note that phrase—

For all those warm words, I do not find that "general principle" reflected in the pay awarded to uniformed police officers in the Thames Valley compared with uniformed officers in Humberside, North Wales or 30 or so other forces. The same lack of "general principle" is applied by the Government to officers, whether sergeants or inspectors, uniformed or detective.

I very much hope that the Government will take on board what Thames Valley police and Members of Parliament are saying this afternoon. I strongly suspect that the Minister will hear similar sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart).

I recently received a copy of a letter that a police sergeant from my constituency wrote to the Home Secretary. At one point the officer made the observation that

It strikes me, therefore, that while the Thames Valley strives to achieve the Government's objectives, it will simply not have the resources to reach those targets without the almost superhuman efforts of existing officers.

The officer also asked the Home Secretary:

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