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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

5.34 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I welcome the record level of funding that has been announced, and, in particular, the amount allocated to the West Midlands force. I am also pleased with the crime fighting fund, now in its third year; later I shall discuss how the West Midlands force has benefited from the fund.

The 12 per cent. real-terms increase in funding between 2000-01 and 2003-04 is welcome because it means that the police will be in a better position to fulfil the task that we, as a society, expect of them. In addition to the revenue grants covered by the report, there are capital amounts. I welcome the amount that will be used to establish the DNA database and a computerised custody system.

I want to address some of the centralisation issues and swingeing powers, as they were called by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), and to try to show that there is nothing unusual in demanding accountability in the police as in other public services. It is axiomatic that the grant of money has a corollary—a responsibility to account for its use. Of course, there is the biblical parable of the three servants who were entrusted by their master with equal sums, and the one blessed was the one who used the money wisely in the master's absence. So there is nothing wrong with asking the police to account for the money granted. That accountability runs alongside the accountability that

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operates at local level through police authorities and local partnerships. The issue is how to measure accountability, and one way to do so is through police performance.

Hon. Members are concerned that performance varies around the country, as is shown, for example, in recorded crime detection rates. I am pleased that the operational command unit in Dudley, North has the highest number of crimes detected per officer in the West Midlands force. I pay tribute to the police officers in my area for the sterling work that they do. That is a comfort to me as the local Member of Parliament, but I cannot be happy that recorded crime detection rates vary dramatically throughout the country. For example, the figure is less than 8 per cent. for burglary in some areas, whereas it is more than 43 per cent. in others. In some cases, the figure for robbery is as low as 15 per cent.; in others it is 50 per cent. No doubt, that variation can be explained in some cases by social and economic factors.

I recently received a strong letter from a constable in my constituency who told me that there was a vast difference between policing in the intense urban conurbation of the west midlands and policing in some of the more relaxed rural shires. There is a certain truth in what he had to say, but performance can and must be improved, so I welcome proposals, which we are not debating this afternoon, such as the creation of the standards unit, which will work alongside the inspectorate to identify and ventilate best practice.

Let me return to the theme of responsibility for using the grant wisely, and then accounting for performance. I raise that issue because the view has been expressed in some quarters that the police are in a different position from other public services. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) referred to the proposed arrangements to exercise a power to remove chief officers on grounds of inefficiency. Some of the other proposals have attracted fire on the basis that, somehow, the police do not have to account for money granted in the same way as other public services. I do not accept that.

At one level, accountability involves compliance with standards—for example, the performance standards to which I have referred: detection rates. At another level, accountability flows from the extent to which the police can be called to account for their behaviour—for example, police complaints procedures. Again, although this is not the subject of this debate, the new independent police complaints commission should enhance satisfaction with the way in which complaints against the police are handled. Incidentally, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to respond at some point on the issue of the complaints procedures operating internally. I have written to him about the extent to which the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 should apply to the police.

A third level of accountability for the money granted is political accountability. One dimension is the extent to which we ask questions about how the police operate. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) mentioned the issue of retention rates in the West Midlands force. To some extent, that parallels the issues raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) because, like the Thames Valley force, the West Midlands force has suffered from an attrition of officers. Last year, 101

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officers left to join other forces. It was the worst year since 1997, when the ratio of leavers to new recruits was also 4:1. One explanation is that other areas have benefited from the crime fighting fund and can now recruit as they could not in the past. Therefore, people who have been trained in the West Midlands force are now going back to their home areas.

Another point mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Minister in correspondence is that the attrition rate in the police force remains low compared with other public services. I also take that point into account. I hope that, in the coming year, he will address issues such as the discrepancy in allowances, to which hon. Members have referred this afternoon. Certainly, the Police Federation in the west midlands has raised with all hon. Members who have constituencies in the area the issue of a special housing allowance, and the fact that that was abolished in the 1990s.

Accountability in terms of asking questions about how the money is spent can be carried out in the House, and it can also be done locally. I shall see my chief constable in the near future and I shall raise with him the issue of allocation of officers in the West Midlands force. In terms of figures on crimes recorded as opposed to officers allocated, I shall make the point—it may have a detrimental effect on other constituencies—that Dudley, North should have more officers.

Another dimension to the issue of accountability for the money granted is the argument, which was echoed in the opening remarks of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, that the police are somehow unaccountable and independent. Some very old legal authorities say that police officers are independent officers of the law, and are not servants of anyone—they are only answerable to the law itself. That analysis is deeply flawed.

Norman Baker: Is not the prime method of accountability the local, elected and accountable police authority? Does not taking more power to the centre weaken that accountability?

Ross Cranston: I hope that the hon. Gentleman has followed the flow of my remarks. Accountability operates at a range of levels—there is local accountability and national accountability. Hon. Members must be able to raise questions in the House about what happens.

I reject the notion that the police are different and do not have to be accountable. It is certainly a constitutional imperative that there can be no interference in their individual case decisions. That would be monstrous. However, it is perfectly consistent with constitutional principle that the police grants that we are considering should be conditional on the police acting accountably in terms of their behaviour and their performance.

5.44 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I wish to address the problems faced by Norfolk police. Governments of both persuasions have historically provided a relatively low level of funding for our police. I would not claim that our problems are as intense as some of those faced in inner-city conurbations, but I hope that the Minister will take my points on board.

The Minister knows that expenditure on policing per head of population in Norfolk is the 10th lowest in England and Wales. It is the second largest county, but it

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has the fourth lowest ratio of police officers to population, and the police face increased demands for their services. Norfolk's population rose from 759,000 in 1991 to nearly 800,000 last year. More than 1 million tourists visit the county in the course of a year. Although we welcome them, they place an additional strain on policing. Like other areas, Norfolk has a royal residence, at Sandringham, and significant military bases. Those are vulnerable to terrorism and the Norfolk police force is involved in their protection.

The number of 999 calls to the force control room in 1996-97 was 63,000. It is anticipated that by the end of this year the number will have risen to 110,000, an increase of 72 per cent. Even with the use of civilian resources, that places an additional strain on the police service. There has also been an increase in certain types of crime. Crime has decreased in many parts of the country, but the Minister knows that there is a fear of crime in rural areas. In Norfolk, we had the high-profile case of Tony Martin, and there has been an increase in robbery and vandalism in many rural communities. We now have the prospect of the damage caused by raves, especially on farms. Like other hon. Members, we have a problem with travellers who, two Christmases ago, descended on Great Yarmouth, which put an enormous strain on policing.

Next year's Government grant for Norfolk represents a 3.6 per cent. increase, which is the second highest budget increase after Derbyshire. Other hon. Members may well ask what I have to complain about. The increase is warmly welcomed, but it does not begin to meet the requirements of the Norfolk police. The reality is that it brings the police authority to a standstill. It requires an increase of at least 4 per cent., and even at that level, according to the police authority, recruitment and current service levels could not be maintained.

The standstill budget will not enable the police force to reach its target on the recruitment of officers. As the Minister knows, Norfolk already has one of the lowest officer to population ratios.

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