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3 Dec 2002 : Column 235WH—continued

Police Funding (Wiltshire)

1.27 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am grateful to the newspaper industry in Scotland for allowing us an extra three minutes in which to discuss this important topic. I am also grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) in the debate this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) have also lent their support, but sadly are not able to be here today.

We sought today's debate because we believed that there might be a threat to the rural policing fund—the ring-fenced funding directly targeted at rural police forces. We were concerned that, if that money were subsumed into the general police funding, even if there was a proportionate increase in the general funding to take account of it, there would be no guarantee of its continuation in subsequent years. In other words, the extra cash that the Home Office, quite correctly, allocates against the additional costs of policing in rural areas would have had to fight for its survival among the more general funding.

In Wiltshire, the annual rural grant is spent on a range of activities and initiatives, many of which allow the high visibility that is so important in a rural area, as well as contributing to the more obvious extra costs of rural policing. For example, it pays for air support at night time. I pay particular tribute to the voluntarily funded Wiltshire air ambulance service, which shares helicopters with the police.

I am delighted to have the support of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), who has now joined the debate. We apologise to her for having started ahead of time, owing to the previous debate having finished early.

The annual rural grant allows more call handling staff, contributes to the prisoner handling team, pays for five support staff who keep the rural stations open, supplies and fits out vehicles that act as mobile police stations, and employs three staff to work on the employment and retention of specials. All those vital services would have been at risk had the rural policing fund been abolished, so we were greatly relieved by the Home Secretary's announcement at the Association of Police Authorities conference that the fund is to be preserved outside the formula. That will safeguard it for subsequent years.

I am delighted to have been joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury, to whom I apologise for having started a moment or two early. I am grateful for his support.

A less modest Member of Parliament might attribute the preservation of the rural policing fund outside the general formula—that seems extremely important for future years—to the imminence of this debate, or at least to our lobbying of the Home Office in the past week or two. The Wiltshire police authority and other rural police authorities, especially those from the south-west of England, have also lobbied the Home Office heavily on the subject. We are glad that the Home Secretary listened carefully and agreed to preserve a ring-fenced fund outside general funding. We merely ask the Minister to assure us that that ring-fencing will continue in subsequent years, as that is terribly important.

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That is where the good news, and perhaps the cross-party consensus, begins to peter out a shade. We and our colleagues in the Wiltshire police authority remain extremely concerned about the imminent announcement on Thursday of the local government settlement, and of the proposed changes to the police funding formula. We all hope that the good sense that the Home Secretary applied in saving the rural grant will be brought to bear on his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister when they consider the settlement.

The press reports—they may be wrong, and one must not believe everything one reads in the papers, so we must wait until Thursday—suggest that funds will be shifted from rural shire areas towards metropolitan areas. That certainly would be the outcome of most of the changes proposed in any of the different versions of the formula that were put out for consultation. No matter which of the five or six options in the consultation process is adopted, some such leaching of funds seems likely.

It is true that Wiltshire has a low crime rate compared with some more urban areas, although the crime rate in Swindon and Salisbury bears comparison with that in most of the larger metropolitan areas elsewhere in England. Yesterday, the Wiltshire chairman of the National Farmers Union, Denise Plummer, reminded me forcefully that even in rural areas there is a worryingly high instance of burglary, especially against farms. In an area such as mine, there is also a worryingly high quantity of drug-related crime.

People often think of drugs as a problem for the inner cities, but rural areas have as big a drugs problem as elsewhere. I discovered only this week that drugs are even a significant problem in one of the smallest rural primary schools in a small local village. Two or three weeks ago, in a superb operation, Wiltshire police arrested 30 drug dealers. People sometimes think of places such as Wiltshire as leafy, suburban, rural and prosperous, but that is not the case. We have significant crime.

The fact that our overall crime levels are in the lowest three in the country is not necessarily because the area is intrinsically better, but perhaps because it is better policed. Crime detection levels in Wiltshire are in the top six in Britain. Our concern is that if funds were leached away from rural to metropolitan areas, that would undermine the fine policing that produces a comparatively low crime rate in places such as Wiltshire. The A303 in the south of Wiltshire, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, and the M4, which goes through my constituency, mean that it is easy to transfer crime from, for example, Bristol, Swindon, London or Reading to areas such as mine. It is wrong to think of such areas as intrinsically less affected by crime.

If funding were cut, Wiltshire police authority, which has taken the lead on several policing initiatives, would no longer be at the cutting edge. We have taken the lead on e-policing, for example, although I was amused to hear that the Home Secretary specifically and personally insisted that the White Paper on policing be circulated

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to all personnel in paper form, even though every civilian and uniformed member of Wiltshire police authority has an e-mail address.

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham ) rose—

Mr. Gray : The Minister is about to repudiate that dreadful allegation. Let me say, however, that the chief constable specifically requested that the White Paper be circulated by e-mail. I would be happy to be corrected, but I am told that the Home Office refused to allow that. The Minister wants to put me right.

Mr. Denham : I congratulate Wiltshire police authority on enabling all its staff to be receive documents by e-mail. The reason the White Paper was made available in paper form was that, sadly, not all police forces allow their officers to access material distributed by e-mail. We are working on that, and I congratulate Wiltshire on being ahead of the game.

Mr. Gray : Apparently, not everyone is on the cutting edge like Wiltshire. There is another problem in that regard, which the chief constable raised with me. People do not read documents that are sent out in paper form, and great piles of paper sit unread in the corner of the police station for quite some time, whereas there is a slightly higher chance of persuading everyone to read their e-mail.

Wiltshire has been extremely imaginative in another sense. It is the first county in which the emergency services have set up a joint command and control centre. The police, the fire brigade and the ambulance service are all in one place, and the new building in Devizes will be opened shortly. Admittedly, there is a problem with the fire brigade, which has insisted that a partition be built in the joint control room, and the Fire Brigades Union is contesting the matter nationally, but we hope that the last remaining barrier will be broken down in the not-too-distant future so that all three services can operate from one control room. It is worth having such arrangements in Wiltshire, which leads the nation in that regard. If, in an unhappy change to the funding formula, our funding were cut on Thursday, such innovations would unquestionably be undermined.

The Minister must think very carefully about such issues, and I hope that he will make strong representations to his colleagues in ODPM. Perhaps he will tell us not to worry and that he will put a floor in place so that our grant will not fall below a certain level no matter what changes are made to the funding formula. I would counter, however, that a floor merely extends the length of time over which a cut becomes effective. We are told that funding will not be allowed to fall below a certain level, but that it will not go up either. A floor does not guarantee that funding will remain as it is but merely spreads the pain—possibly over many years. Any such shift in funding is unacceptable in principle, irrespective of how it is managed.

The only other way to counter any untoward change in the funding formula would be to increase the precept. Before the Minister contemplates going down that track, however, he should consider this. It is not unreasonable to assume that there will be a 2 per cent.

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increase in central Government funding on Thursday. Let us also assume that Wiltshire's precept will increase by 10 per cent., which is as much as can be contemplated without inflicting great hardship. In that regard, it was interesting that the Countryside Agency produced a report this morning about poverty and deprivation in the countryside. An increase of more than 10 per cent. in the precept would have very worrying effects on many constituents, while a 2 per cent. increase in general funding plus a 10 per cent. increase in the precept would result in a £1.2 million cut in police funding in Wiltshire. In crude terms, that is equivalent to 50 police officers.

The statistics demonstrate that, even without any further untoward changes in the funding formula, a 2 per cent. general increase in central funding on Thursday and a 10 per cent. increase in the local precept could still lead to the loss of about 50 police officers in Wiltshire. For the sake of the peace of mind of my constituents and those of my hon. Friends, it is only reasonable to say that it is unlikely that 50 redundancy notices will be going out on Friday morning. Of course that will not happen; that is not how it works, and it would be wrong to give that impression. Eventually, in a year or two, because of reduction or delay in recruitment, 50 fewer officers than at present would be available in Wiltshire.

In my area and, I am sure, other parts of Wiltshire, there are real visibility problems. Visibility is extremely important in rural areas. The problem is occurring in places such as Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett, Chippenham and Corsham, the four main towns in my area. My surgery is full of people complaining about it. How much worse things would be if the Government were to try to filch further funds from us in favour of Labour-controlled inner-city areas. That would be unsustainable and politically unforgivable.

I hope that the Minister will take advantage of this short debate and, just as the Home Secretary has done with respect to the rural policing fund, allay our concerns about what may await us in the settlement to be announced on Thursday, and the new formula. Rural police forces await the announcement with some nervousness. The Wiltshire police do an outstanding job and I hope that the Minister will lay out plans that will allow them to continue to be as good as they are.

1.40 pm

Mr. Denham : I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on securing this debate. I am pleased to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) and the hon. Members for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I am grateful for their interest.

It is of course a bit unfortunate that the debate takes place before the announcement of the provisional police funding settlement for next year, which is due later this week—on Thursday, on the current timetable. However, today we have a useful opportunity to discuss some of the local concerns that were well set out by the hon. Gentleman, as well as what the Government and the police are doing, with local authorities, to reduce crime and make Wiltshire a safer place to live in.

The announcement is imminent and I cannot provide further specifics until it has been made. It is worth bearing in mind that Thursday's announcements will be

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provisional. As with the rest of the local government settlement, there will be an opportunity to make representations during the consultation period, which will run, on current plans, until 14 January 2003.

I acknowledge the record of the police service in Wiltshire. It has a good record as an innovative force. The hon. Gentleman has talked about the joint working that has led to the combined control centre. Those concerned with the provisions in the Police Reform Act 2002 for extending the use of police staff in custody suites learned from innovative work done in Wiltshire. Also, some of the changes that we made in that Act to allow wider use of nurses and paramedics were made in response to direct representations from Elizabeth Neville, the chief constable. I am happy to acknowledge—with regard not just to e-policing and the current initiatives, but to several other matters—that Wiltshire police have worked hard to innovate and to lead the reforms that we want to happen more widely.

For the current year, Wiltshire police were allocated Government grant of £56.5 million, which was an increase of 2.3 per cent. over 2001–02. Last year floors and ceilings on the change in police grant were introduced for the first time. Floors protect police authorities that would otherwise receive a lower settlement, by ensuring that no authority receives an increase in grant of less than 2.3 per cent. The use of floors and ceilings ensured that every police authority received a grant at least in line with general inflation.

The way in which grant is distributed according to the system is intended broadly to reflect the relative needs of forces. The formula is weighted according to population so that forces covering larger populations receive more money. It also takes into account sociodemographic factors, and that, in part, is understood by all concerned as one of the surrogates for the pressure on policing—the likely demand and the likely levels of activity.

The hon. Gentleman said that it would be wrong to get the impression that Wiltshire was suburban, rural and prosperous. Large parts of it—I know the southern area best—are indeed rural and prosperous. Not all of it is, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon comes from a part that has its fair share of problems. However, it would be wrong to characterise Wiltshire in the way in which the hon. Gentleman attempted to do.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Can my right hon. Friend explain why, in the consultation, deprivation has been considered as a factor that might be introduced into the formula? Policing is not like education, where deprivation is used as a proxy for educational challenges or attainment. When crime statistics are used in a formula, as they have been here, surely it is not necessary to include deprivation as well. I hope that he will move on to the matter of cost. The high costs that our police force faces are an important issue for all of us in Wiltshire.

Mr. Denham : We held consultations on a number of possible amendments to the formula because it was, as always, difficult to achieve the correct balance of the factors involved. We are sometimes urged to put a lot of weight directly on recorded crime statistics. That brings

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with it the danger of rewarding the police services that are not performing well, as opposed to those that are fighting crime effectively. The search is always on to balance the factors in a way that fairly represents the different pressures on the police service.

We held consultations on a proposal to bring the rural policing fund into the main police grant formula. There were reasons for that. It would have been possible to have a rural formula that reflected sparsity, and for that to be reflected in the main formula. However, the balance of responses to the consultation was that, although that would have resulted in winners and losers, even in rural areas, there was a sense that the rural areas and those that benefited from the rural policing fund preferred to have a separate, ring-fenced fund, rather than for it to be part of the main formula. The case could be argued either way, but we listened to the consultation and we were pleased to hear the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a few weeks ago.

The rural policing fund is a good example of the way in which some police forces benefit from the allocation of significant sums outside the normal grant formula—in Wiltshire's case, £1.1 million. There are other funds through which forces gain significant sums outside the grant distribution. This year, Wiltshire received £1.7 million from the crime fighting fund, which is tied directly to the recruitment of additional police officers. Thanks to the Government's introduction of that fund, we now have record numbers of police officers in England and Wales.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire made many of my points about the use of the rural policing fund for me. Wiltshire was one of the forces that was able to demonstrate effective use of its expenditure. He referred to the air support providing night-time coverage and faster response times, the investment in call handling staff to improve the service across the county and the establishment of the prisoner handling team. I referred in my opening remarks to some of Wiltshire's innovations: support for rural station clerks, the development of mobile police stations and the investment—which I thoroughly commend—in support staff to work on the employment and retention of special constables.

There are many concerns about and recognised limitations to the police funding formula. As a whole, it has strengths, and it has the general confidence of the policing community. We have been keen to ensure that any new arrangements fully support the reform and modernisation process on which we have embarked for the police, while retaining public confidence. The 2003-04 consultation paper contained six options for change: using new activity analysis data; integrating the rural policing fund into the main formula, which we have discussed; reducing the establishment component to zero; increasing the personal crime component; increasing the public order component; and the possibility of a 2 per cent. deprivation component.

I believe that the majority of the policing community has been in favour of updating the activity analysis data and generally in favour of ending the establishment component. There has been a strong preference for retaining the rural policing fund. The balance of support for the other options is more mixed, as one would

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expect, depending on its impact on different services. The decisions on those options will have to wait until Thursday.

I have already mentioned the effective role played by the crime fighting fund. The Government recognise that police numbers are an important part of a comprehensive package of measures to ensure a modern and efficient police service. The public feel reassured by the sight of police officers on our streets, and that certainly helps to reduce the fear of crime. It is, of course, for the chief constable and the police authority to determine the precise make-up of the force and the distribution of officers throughout the force area. On 31 March 2002, Wiltshire had 1,157 police officers, 37 more than in March 2001. I understand that the force plans to recruit a further 89 officers by March 2003, thereby meeting its recruitment target for the current year.

Since 1997, the number of civilian staff employed by Wiltshire police increased by 174 to 649 in March 2001. Many of the extra civilian support staff have been used to free police officers from paperwork and jobs that can be undertaken as effectively by civilians, allowing police officers to spend more time on operational work. I have already acknowledged the lead of the chief constable of Wiltshire in developing the full role of police staff.

Mr. Gray : The Minister said that there were 1,157 police officers in March 2002. He then went on to talk about the increase in civilian employees since 1997. Perhaps he could tell us how many police officers there were in Wiltshire in 1997 and how that compares with the current figure.

Mr. Denham : I do not have the exact figure, but I know that there were fewer then than there are in Wiltshire now. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on that point.

In addition, we are committed to increasing the size of the special constabulary, whose numbers have gradually fallen. That is partly because of the numbers of special constables who have been allowed to join the police service, but none the less, we are currently working with Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Surrey, on a project to consider ways of improving the recruitment, deployment and effective use of specials, which we hope will produce valuable guidance for the service next year. I know that Wiltshire police want the number of special constables to be increased.

The hon. Gentleman referred, fairly, to recorded crime in Wiltshire. Recorded crime levels have decreased since 1996–97. The figures for all categories of offence are lower in Wiltshire than the average in the south-west region or in England and Wales as a whole. Detection rates in Wiltshire for each of the categories are better than in the south-west region or England and Wales as a whole. The annual detection rate of 30 per cent. is higher than that for the south-west region as a whole, which is 23 per cent.

Of course, the support that we provide for the police service is not the only way in which we seek to reduce and tackle crime in Wiltshire. Crime reduction partnerships have also been developed in the county. In 2002–03, the police service was able to work, through those partnerships, with local authorities and others, using just under £750,000 of funding from the

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partnership development fund, the safer communities initiative and the communities against drugs project. More directly, the force has recently applied for, and will receive, funding to employ 15 community support officers by the end of the financial year.

CSOs are an innovation introduced in the Police Reform Act 2002. The Metropolitan police service has pioneered the idea. All hon. Members will have seen the CSOs patrolling who have taken over some of the anti-terrorism reassurance duties in Westminster, allowing police officers to return to their normal duties. I am interested to hear that a predominantly rural police service such as Wiltshire's has also taken advantage of that funding. It will be interesting to see what use will be made of CSOs and how effectively they can be deployed in different circumstances from those of the Metropolitan police.

The hon. Gentleman quite reasonably asked me to speculate on what figures there might be on Thursday. I am afraid that I cannot do that, but I shall make an important point. We have made it clear that this year we shall continue the policy of having floors and ceilings in the grant settlement. He said that the only thing that floors do is spread out cuts. I do not accept that. It is worth bearing in mind that for a number of years the overall funding of the police service has been increasing in real terms, which will continue. The cake is getting bigger. While any changes to any funding formula mean that the relative sizes of the slices of the cake change, that does not mean that police services face cuts in real terms in their allocation.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Can the Minister assure us that he has given due consideration to the special responsibilities of the Wiltshire constabulary—including special protection—with regard to the Ministry of Defence police, the military police and the other service authorities, which impose a significant burden?

Mr. Denham : When the burdens of such costs are significant enough to be picked up either through direct funding arrangements or in the funding formula, that is done. It is not always possible to pick up every cost, because every police force is able to point to something that is peculiar to the challenges in its area. I could not tell the hon. Gentleman the precise balance of funding, if any, that is available to Wiltshire, though I would be happy to write to him about what provision is made.

The debate about the funding formula has been limited to the six potential changes that I outlined, rather than taking in issues that are specific to any particular force. Any other arrangements would be dealt with outside the formula.

I hope that I have been able to respond to at least some of the points raised. Had the timing of the debate been slightly different—had it taken place after Thursday—we could no doubt have discussed the real figures, but we will have to wait until another day for that.

Question put and agreed to.

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