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5 Feb 2003 : Column 311—continued

Mr. Francois: The Minister will be aware that one of the particular challenges that the Essex force faces is the drain of officers to the Met. It also faces the challenge of additional national insurance costs from April, and additional pension costs. The right hon. Gentleman knows that Essex police authority had a very tough settlement this year. How does he expect the force to continue to fight crime effectively if he will not give it the resources to do the job?

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman should consider what it would be like if his party were in power and were implementing a 20 per cent. cut in public spending. Police numbers fell when his party was in power, and they have increased under this Government.

Essex has been supported; it has the floor of 3 per cent. In addition, it is receiving £5.79 million extra to pay for the costs of police officers recruited in recent years. That is the sort of extra support, over and above the police grant, that we are giving to Essex, and that the hon. Gentleman would do well to welcome.

Finally, I acknowledge that forces in the south-east have recruitment and retention difficulties, on which we are working with the Metropolitan police and police forces in the south-east. A range of issues are under active discussion, and I hope that we shall be able to bring forward more details of some of the initiatives that we can take in due course.

In summary, I believe that the funding arrangements for 2003–2004 and beyond that I have described are a substantial commitment to policing and to combating crime. We should never forget that under the Conservative party crime doubled and police numbers were falling. Police numbers are now at record levels. Crime has fallen over the past few years. We need to do more, both in building up our police service and bringing down crime and the fear of crime, and it is our intention to do so.

2.33 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The right hon. Gentleman has a reputation in the House for being a very genuine and serious, as well as able,

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Minister. I was sorry, therefore, that in his opening remarks he seemed determined to stir up anger on these Benches—in my view somewhat unnecessarily, especially as I shall show that he was, to say the least, playing fast and loose with facts and figures.

I want to start by saying something with a personal touch, and I ask for the indulgence of the House. I want to put on the record my gratitude to the Government for the two special payments they have made this year to Cambridgeshire constabulary: £1.1 million towards policing Huntingdon Life Sciences and protecting staff, suppliers and so on who were under threat from so-called animal welfare activists; and, more important, £3.5 million made available towards the cost of Operation Fincham, which took place in my constituency, relating to the tragic disappearance and death of the two little girls last August. It was a huge financial strain on a small police force, and I am grateful to the Government for recognising that.

Before turning to the specific proposals, which even the Minister took some time to get to, I think we should look at the background to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. First, I remind the House that at the last general election there were some 1,600 police officers fewer than when Labour came to power in 1997.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: Not yet.

While it is perfectly true that police numbers have risen since the election, the fact remains that in the six years of Labour Government which we have now suffered police numbers are up by less than 3 per cent., assuming that the Minister is right and we meet the 130,000 target. That is an average increase over six years of just 500 officers a year. Throughout the 18 years of the previous Conservative Government, the average annual increase in the number of police officers was 850, and in the last year numbers went up, contrary to the impression that the Minister and his puppets behind him seem to wish to give. Of course, we welcome more police numbers, but the much heralded recent increase must be seen against the first four years of major reductions, which I remind the House were part of "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

My second point concerns bureaucracy. "Diary of a Police Officer", the study that the Government commissioned just under two years ago, produced some horrendous statistics and figures. They made horrific reading: levels of bureaucracy, form-filling and time-wasting keeping officers off the streets. That is common ground between me and the Minister.

I had hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would tell us a little more about what has happened since then. Last year he said that the roll-out of the computerised custody system was "imminent". How many forces now have the system and when is completion of the roll-out expected?Will the Minister also tell us what assessment he has commissioned of the effectiveness of that system in releasing officer time, which we all wish to see?

I come to the issue of the council tax precepts, which several hon. Members have referred to in interventions. The Minister avoided any reference to those precepts by saying that the matter is basically down to the local

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police authority. Of course it is, but I cannot believe that the Treasury has not told the Home Office what it believes the average level of council tax precept increase should be based on this year's total standard spending settlement. The Minister does the House, not to mention police authorities, an injustice in not giving some guidance on what the Government believe should be the average increase in police authority precepts.

Mr. Challen: The hon. Gentleman and I both took part in consideration of the Police Reform Bill. I recall his saying then that there was far too much Government interference in the affairs of local police authorities. Is he now reversing his opinion and saying that we should have Treasury interference in them?

Mr. Paice: No. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the hon. Gentleman distorts what I said. I did not say that I wanted the Government to state what the council tax precept should be.

Mr. Challen: That is the effect.

Mr. Paice: Far from it. What I want to know is this: when all the figures were worked out, what assessment did the Government make of what they should mean for council tax precepts? Those are statistics that the Treasury always works out. I would not mind gambling, if I were that way inclined, that in the next debate, when we discuss the wider issues of council tax rises, we shall be given a statistic for the average expectation. I find it odd that we did not receive it for the police. Of course, the final decision must be for the local police authority, but I am surprised that the Government have not given us that statistic.

I am also surprised that the Minister included among the raft of figures that he read out—they were relatively meaningless towards the end of his speech, as he did not read out any comparators—the £30 million for rural areas, as though he should have been given some plaudits for retaining that provision. I remind the House that it was this Government who proposed taking that money away from rural areas. It takes some barefaced effrontery for the Government to seek credit for not doing something that they proposed and that would have damaged rural areas.

This coming year will be the first full year in which the impact of last year's police reforms can be felt, including those in the Police Reform Act 2002 and those carried out under the Police Negotiating Board. According to the Minister, those reforms are fully funded in the settlement. However, the Association of Police Authorities believes that, as a standstill budget, authorities needed an extra £482 million, compared with the £275 million that they are getting. It claims that £137 million is needed above the increase in TSS simply to cover inflation and pay pressures, plus a further £70 million for pensions.

Jim Knight: Given that there is some interest among Labour Members in what would happen if the Conservative party got into power, will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he would grant the request made by the Association of Police Authorities?

Mr. Paice: To my immense regret, we are not in power, and I do not envisage our being so in this

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financial year. It is this year's figures that we are talking about. However, as the hon. Gentleman raised the issue, I can tell him that when this party returns to power, we will seek to increase police numbers above whatever they are when we take office. What is more, we will ensure that the police have the appropriate funding.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House how it would be possible to increase police numbers while not only making a 20 per cent. cut across the board, but implementing the other policies to which his party has committed itself? It has already committed itself to matching Government expenditure on defence and international development. [Hon. Members: "Oh dear."] It is no good saying "Oh dear". He needs to explain to the House how he will increase the numbers.

Mr. Paice: Nobody speaking for the Conservative party has said that we will cut the totality of Government expenditure by 20 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman had read the article that gave rise to all the hype and hysteria, he would understand that the idea was to reduce by 20 per cent. most central Government costs and not total Government expenditure. Let us put that proposition to bed once and for all.

Although the 3.7 per cent. increase in total standard spending may sound generous, it is far from generous in comparison with the actual increases in the costs faced by forces. Many of those costs were imposed by the Secretary of State through legislation or because of his leaning on the police negotiating body.

I read the 2000 comprehensive spending review with some surprise, as it appears that the grand total in police expenditure for next year is more than that which the Minister has announced. Will he explain to the House why, when the Government have rightly taken the trouble to plan out expenditure over a period of three years, the figures have ceased to be correct and he has announced a police settlement of less than that given in the CSR?

The main figure to which the Minister referred is the 6.2 per cent. increase in police spending. Hon. Members who have not studied the papers may wonder about the difference between that figure and the 3.7 per cent. figure to which I have referred. Of course, the answer is the money, over which the Home Secretary wishes to keep control. Out of the total of an extra £543 million to be spent on policing, £268 million, or 49 per cent. of that total, will be spent at the behest of the Secretary of State. Some of it will go to police authorities, but only if they spend it as he dictates.

If that centralisation of control continues, ever more power will go to the centre. That continues the trend that I identified a year ago, as it provides the barest minimum to police authorities and keeps as much as possible for central control. However many reservations the Home Secretary may have about the ability of individual authorities to make effective decisions, the temptation to take central control should be resisted. He should be taking up the challenge of deciding how to improve local accountability and ensure more effective financial control locally, rather than taking things in the other direction and taking such responsibilities upon himself.

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