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5 Feb 2003 : Column 314continued
Mr. Paice: I remind the hon. Gentleman that police numbers rose considerably in the last year of the Conservative Government, when we did not have a crime fighting fund. It was the Conservative Government who rightly gave chief officers and authorities discretion as to how their resources were spent. I believe that, prior to 1993, the Home Secretary decided on the establishment for every police authority. In my view, that sort of centralisation is wholly unacceptable, but I believe that we are heading back in that direction. Of course, I welcome extra police officers, but I also believe strongly in discretion for those at a local level to use resources as they think fit.
Mr. Denham: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the position, as I am getting confused? A few moments ago, he committed his party, should it ever return to government, to having more police officers than the number at the time when it takes office, whatever that number is. As he has opposed using either of the mechanisms that have been used consistently to increase the number of police officers, how on earth does he intend to deliver that commitment? Is it merely an empty promise, because he has no intention of introducing mechanisms to fulfil it?
Mr. Paice: The Minister will have to await the detail of our proposals. I would not wish to spoil him by giving them all in one go. The basic thrust it that we should remove obstacles from police authorities that prevent them from making decisions on spending money on police officers, remove the reasons for police officers being locked up in police stations or courts and make the whole arrangement far more flexible and adaptable so that the police authorities and chief constables can use the extra resources to which they will be entitled. That should be done by devolving more to them so that they can maximise the number of officers on the beat. That would be the simple and obvious way forward if it were not for the demand on centralising control that the current Government have adopted.
On the crime fighting fund, we have debated the issue of centralisation, but will the Minister tell us a bit more about next year? I understand that he has decided to extend the fund, which is welcome in terms of extra money, although I would prefer it to be devolved. I also understand, however, that the Government now expect an underspend in the crime fighting fund within the existing provision. I am grateful that he has apparently decided that that underspend should be used to extend the fundI believe that it will cover another 650 officersbut will he explain where the underfunding has come from? If the crime fighting fund has been a success and he has got the extra 9,000 officers recruited between April 2000 and this coming March for whom he has set
I also understand that those 650 new officers will be funded at only 75 per cent. of their pay costs. Will the Minister tell us what are the implications of that for the future? How can an authority budget ahead without any assurance about whether the funding for those officers will remain at 75 per cent., or be cut to 50 or 25 per cent., or even increased to 100 per cent.? There is no continuity.
I welcome what the Minister had to say about the civilian support officers because he impliedhe may wish to retract the implicationthat he was taking seriously the point that the Opposition made during the consideration of the Police Reform Act 2002: whether to employ community support officers should be up to the discretion of local police chiefs and authorities. It is hardly surprising that he should have 1,000 or so CSOs in place and bids for many more if that is the only way to access money for any more officers of any description.
I remind the Minister and the House that, with the exception of the Metropolitan police, not a single chief constable said that, given the option, he or she would not rather employ regular police officers than CSOs. I am sure that my hon. Friends will recall that from their own discussions. If the Minister does what we exhort him to doabolish the fund and put the money straight into the policeit will be interesting to find out how many forces decide to divert the resources back to regular officers.
Finally, I wish to say a word or two on the new formula to which the Minister referred and the floors and ceilings. Obviously, with a new formula for the police and the adjustments to the local government formulathe area cost adjustmentthere will be gainers and losers and therefore the operation of floors and ceilings is perfectly understandable so long as it is transitional. There are 19 police authorities at the floor; 14 at the ceiling. The fact that that is well over half the totality of police authorities in this country demonstrates that considerable unevenness remains in the distribution.
Will the Government lay out a phased elimination of those floors and ceilings; or do they intend to leave them there for ever? If they have confidence in their new formula, surely they should have the confidence to pursue its introduction. How can any authority look forward and try to plan not just for the next financial year, but for years to come without having any understanding of where it will be in future with regard to the floors and ceilings policy?
The House has always made clear its support for the police, and I believe that the vast majority of the British public support the police, although, anecdotally, I fear that that support is reducing. However, that support will completely fail unless the police are responsive to local needs, and it defies belief that response to local needs is
The most reprehensible element of this package is that extra resources will continue to be kept to the centre. Police authorities get a 3.7 per cent. increase, but the Home Secretary gets a 20 per cent. increase on what he keeps to the centre. That belies all his protestations about centralisation; it is a command-and-control approach to policing, which is wrong.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling): It would be remiss of me, as a Nottinghamshire Member of Parliament, not to begin my speech without first paying further tribute to PC Ged Walker and his family. He was murdered very recently while on duty in Nottingham. As part of this debate, we should just pause for a moment to reflect not only on his bravery, but on the bravery of all our police officers and security personnel across the country on whom we all depend.
In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement and discussing the grant, it is important to note that we have seen significant increases in support for our local police, not just this year or last year, but for a sustained period of improvement. That approach, in conjunction with police authorities, has provided significantly more police officers. The £5 million extra that we in Nottinghamshire will get next year will enable us to continue the improvements in police numbers that we have seen.
I want to place on record the fact that, in 19992000, there were 2,224 police officers in Nottinghamshire, but by March 2003, there will be 2,434a 10 per cent. increase over that period. By anyone's calculation, that is a significant improvement in the number of available police officers. We already have 12 community support officers, but there will be additional CSOs because of the increase in grant. Despite that increase in grant and in the number of police officers, one of the common complaints that I hearI am sure that all hon. Members dois that people turn around and say, "Where are the extra police? Where is the increased police presence on the street? Why are their calls not being answered?"
I want to make a couple of points to the Minister about increased police funding. As well as talking about the amount of grant, we need to discuss how we can improve performance with the additional money that we make available to the police. As the Minister and other hon. Members will know, one of the things that we need to do is to make local police stations much more accountable with respect to the local basic command unit statistics.
I ask my right hon. Friend to consider another point about the police grant. Even in Nottinghamshirea close-knit countypeople in my constituency want the figures to be extrapolated so that they know what they mean for their local police station in Arnold or in Carlton. They want to know how much additional spending there will be and how it relates to fighting crime.
One of the things that is sometimes disappointing about debates on the policethis is a serious pointis that we inevitably get some to-ing and fro-ing about the number of police officers. We all want more police on the streets. This is a difficult point, but when we give additional grants to police forces, I ask the Minister to consider not only the number of police officers that they have on their books, but the number of operational police officers that the grant can provide. I suspect that, if different police forces were given the same amount of money, there would be significantly more police officers on the street in one area than in another.
We need to be intelligent about this issue and to take forward the debate, and not simply argue about raw statistics and raw police numbers. Of course that is importantwe all want more police officersbut we also need to ask ourselves how one police force can get X number of police officers on the street, whereas another force cannot manage to do so even though it gets exactly the same amount of money. That may happen because of the way that different police authorities chose to use their money. That is a matter for local democracy and local accountability. However, it is incumbent on us to have a sensible debate on police officers and numbers on the street, otherwise, we will have a sterile discussion in which we bat things to and fro, which would not be particularly helpful to my constituents or the country as a whole.