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5 Feb 2003 : Column 318—continued

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I want to add a constructive suggestion. The other information that seems to be increasingly relevant is the number of new, probationary or trainee police officers. There is a huge turnover and we face an even bigger loss as people are coming up to retirement age. Many police managers—commanders—will not allow young police officers in their first two years of service to do the jobs that the others do. If we could have that profile, we would be able to see the pattern and picture of policing in each local borough command unit.

Vernon Coaker: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My police service in Nottinghamshire often tells me that even though it may have more officers, they are not seen on individual patrol if they are new recruits because, as part of their training, they are teamed up with other officers. That creates problems, as he says.

May I raise a specific point with the Minister? He will know it from Nottinghamshire police's point of view, but, as a local Member of Parliament, I also want to make it. Nottinghamshire police faces metropolitan crime levels—he knows that Nottinghamshire is one of the 10 street crime initiative areas—but it is funded as a shire service. Will he respond on that particular problem and put on record the Government's view on that point, which is often made from Nottinghamshire?

I appreciate that the Government have given extra money—nearly £1 million under the street crime initiative and £4.3 million under the crime fighting fund. I say to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who spoke for the

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Opposition, that the Minister made a good point on the crime fighting fund. If we want more police officers, one way to achieve that is through central pots of money that are granted only for spending on additional officers, although that would remove local discretion to use the money differently.

That returns us to the point about having a sterile debate on police officer numbers. In a sense, we cannot have it both ways. People say, "Money should not be held centrally if it is to be used to provide more police locally." However, if the Government devolve the money to the local level, the police authority may choose not to spend it on police officers. When that happens, Members say that police numbers are not going up. That is a difficult circle to square, although the point is an interesting one to make. I should add that the Airwave project is receiving an additional £1.13 million. There are additional moneys over and above the core budget, which is important.

The Minister knows, however, that I receive complaints that the problems in Nottingham with shootings, drug problems and so on suck in officers from the surrounding areas. That is understandable, but sometimes it means that officers who should be deployed in my area—the suburbs and elsewhere—perhaps have to be deployed to deal with more serious crimes. Will he comment on that?

I want to make a couple of other points about the grant and the debate on policing. There is a further debate to have on paying special constables. Will the Minister comment on special constables, who make an important contribution? Furthermore, community support officers, who tackle low-level antisocial behaviour, will also make an important contribution to policing in each area.

I am pleased with the additional grant that has been made available to Nottinghamshire police, as it has allowed the growth in police numbers to continue, which is to be welcomed. I pay tribute to the work done by the chief constable and his officers across the county in trying to reduce crime and to the police authority chair, John Clarke, for the work that he is doing. I wish them well with the increased resources that they have to tackle crime. There are real issues as to how we get more police officers on the street to reassure people and to tackle crime.

I hope that we can debate police numbers without concentrating only on that in absolute terms. If we can do so, we will make a greater contribution to tackling crime and disorder in our communities.

3.4 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): In opening the debate, the Minister repeated a truism that is worth repeating—that we are dealing not just with crime, but with the fear of crime. Many factors underlie criminal behaviour and there are many causes of crime that we are not properly tackling. Adequate and effective policing is one way to combat not only crime but the fear of crime. And part of the answer is not only bobbies on the beat but the fear of bobbies on the beat: no legislation or exhortation from those on the Government Benches will have half as much effect on

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criminal behaviour across the country as the reasonable expectation of being caught and of there being the police officers on the ground who can do the job and ensure that criminals are apprehended.

One problem when times are hard in the police service is that, inevitably and rightly, resources are focused on areas of major crime and major visibility. As a result, we lose first what chief constables, but not those whom they serve, often consider a marginal activity—the patrol function. That is why it is so important that we get the policing formulae right and that we give adequate resources to the police authorities and chief constables to enable them to make the decisions that need to be made in local areas.

Let us be clear about the fact that the settlement is an awful lot better than some we received before 1997 under the previous Government. I have experience of that. As the Minister knows, I was on the receiving end as chairman of a police authority in those years. I remember going each year to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who was then Home Secretary and is now Opposition spokesman on Treasury matters, to ask for more officers for Avon and Somerset. Every year, I was told, "No, not a single extra officer will you get." So, I take the views that are sometimes expressed by Conservative Members with a serious pinch of salt.

The settlement is also much better than those we came to expect in the early years of this Labour Government. One of the enduring failures of the new Labour Administration is not dealing adequately with policing and home affairs during their first few years of tenure. The belief that one could provide an adequate policing service within the constraints of the previously decided Conservative budget figures was hugely mistaken and it cost us dear in terms of its effect on our police forces up and down the country.

I do not argue with the Minister saying that some things are sensibly top sliced from the overall policing budget to provide for central expenditure. I am a great believer in local determination and allowing local police authorities to set their budget, but I cannot see a great deal of sense in disbursing money only to collect it straight back for national procurement programmes. Therefore, there clearly are areas where the Home Office is right to retain control.

There is a present need to respond to the threat of terrorism. I applaud the Minister for continuing to make more moneys available for that purpose, but I ask whether similar funds are made available through other Departments to other law enforcement bodies to meet that threat. He may not be able to give me an answer now, but I am concerned. Indeed, at the end of last year, I expressed my concern about the position of British Transport police, which is funded through the rail companies, and whether it has adequate funds to meet the threat of terrorist action on the tube. I have a continuing fear that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise is not being funded adequately to allow it to do an important job in protecting our borders. There is in any case a strong argument for reconstructing our border forces to make them more effective and more efficient.

The point at which I start to argue with the Minister is when he asserts—not boasts, because he is not a great boaster as a Minister—that in the 6.2 per cent. increase

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to which he has alluded he has scored a major success in police service funding. That is fine and good—it represents a success against the Treasury to some extent, because at one point the expectation was that the increase would be far less than that. However, the Minister must not confuse the British public or undermine the position of chief constables and local police authorities by pretending that that is what will go to local authorities and police forces throughout the country.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) noted the disparity between that which is distributed through the police grant formula and the needs of police authorities. We know that the total increase in revenue funding for police authorities from central Government is about £275 million, which is an increase of 3.7 per cent., not 6.2 per cent. as was mentioned. That sum has to cover the results of the police negotiating body formulae, so a large part is, in effect, already taken before the money reaches the police authorities. We know also that, in the light of a reasonable and sober assessment on the part of police authorities, they need £482 million simply to stand still. My experience is that police authority treasurers and chief constables are not ones to over-egg the pudding and overstate their case: they tell it like it is. The fact is that, given an inflation and pay gap of £137 million and the £70 million pensions gap, they have some difficult sums to do.


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