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5 Feb 2003 : Column 321—continued

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Does my hon. Friend share my concern that Dorset police authority faces increasing its share of council tax by 20 per cent. against a background of its expenditure per head of population being the second lowest among English authorities and its council tax the fourth highest, and the authority being a beacon of efficiency? What is my local police authority meant to do in the circumstances?

Mr. Heath: I will talk about the circumstances of specific authorities and the results in terms of council tax later. I assume that my hon. Friend does not subscribe to the rather odd view entertained by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), that one of the answers is to send the funds back and not recruit extra police officers. I understand my hon. Friend's point of view, but if Dorset has spare police officers whom it wants to return to sender, let it send them just across the county boundary to Wincanton in my constituency, where I will be extremely happy to welcome a few extra police officers to Somerset.

Mr. Chope: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will admit that what he just said is a misrepresentation of my remarks. I was referring to an option that the police authority was considering, and the implications of following that option through.

Mr. Heath: I have to say that the hon. Gentleman gave every indication of supporting that option. Perhaps he could have phrased his intervention a little better.

Pensions are a huge problem that has bedevilled police authorities for more years than we care to remember. The Minister says that he is struggling with

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it and hopes to find a solution, but does he realise that I had precisely that response from the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) back in 1996, when the right hon. Gentleman was a Home Office Minister? He told me then that it would all be over by Christmas—that by Christmas we would have a paper on police pensions that would deal with the problem. Yet, as the decades pass, the problem worsens. Unless someone grasps the nettle of future pensions contributions at least to stem the tide, pensions will continue to be a huge problem for chief constables and police authorities in managing their affairs.

Among the great problems that police authorities face we find not only the 3.7 per cent. overall increase, but the peculiar way in which it is distributed throughout the country. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred to the number of authorities that are on the floor and are to receive only a 3 per cent. increase. Goodness knows what they would have received had the floor not been in place; presumably, they would have had to cut their police establishment left, right and centre. However, a curious feature of that list of local authorities is how localised they are. Every single authority in the south-west is on the floor—Avon and Somerset, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Devon and Cornwall—as is every authority in the south-east. Nottinghamshire, represented by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), might have escaped, but a fair proportion of authorities in the east midlands are also on the floor.

It is as though the Government decided that there are enough police south of the Wash and that there are enough police to deal with crime in the home counties and the west country. However, it is not the perception on the ground that we have sufficient resources and sufficient officers patrolling our towns, cities and villages—quite the reverse. Every single one of the authorities on that list will be extremely disadvantageously affected and will face having to impose extremely high council tax increases just to stand still. We have already heard Dorset Members from all the major parties making points on behalf of Dorset, and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) spoke on behalf of Gloucestershire.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Is my hon. Friend surprised to learn that Devon and Cornwall has the fewest police per head of population, but still finds itself on the floor? Is something wrong?

Mr. Heath: I am not surprised, because I know that several of the authorities in which we have an interest are in exactly the same position.

There is no objectivity in the formula. It might appear to be based on objective measures, but in terms of relating it to population or to police activity, it is grossly deficient.

Mr. Denham: It might help the debate if the hon. Gentleman reminds me of the main points made by the

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Liberal Democrats in their response to our consultation on the formula. Which objective measures did the Liberal Democrats suggest during that consultation?

Mr. Heath: First, to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), the effect of the area cost adjustment on police authorities is extreme.

Mr. Denham rose—

Mr. Heath: The Minister intervened, so he must give me a chance to respond. He brushed his hon. Friend's point aside, saying that it was not a matter for him, but one for Ministers at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Well, it matters a great deal to those who are trying to operate a police service, whether police authorities or chief constables, because it affects not only the funds available to them but the way in which they attract and retain officers in areas that are marginal to areas of high housing costs and high wages. Those are real problems in large parts of the country.

I do not want the House to think that I am speaking only for the people of the west country. Let me give an example of another authority that has done badly out of the formula—Derbyshire.

Mr. Denham: I do not want the hon. Gentleman inadvertently to fail to answer my question. What proposals regarding their preferred formula did the Liberal Democrats make?

Mr. Heath: The Minister knows that we approach local government funding in a totally different way from the Government, so I will not respond on that basis, although it is a serious point. We could turn over the entire debate to the different ways of funding local authorities, including police authorities, but I do not think that that is the purpose of today's debate, so I will not be drawn down that route. The right hon. Gentleman has proposed this formula, and he has to answer for the effects on local authorities and police authorities throughout the country.

The chief constable of Derbyshire, David Coleman, describes the increase as "extremely disappointing". He says:

That is a police authority and a constabulary that has been making huge progress in turning back from quite difficult times not so long ago. They have tried to do their best in policing a diverse area in Derbyshire and are now being hit by this hammer blow of simply not having the resources that they need to do the job. For authorities to be on the floor is not without a cost to other authorities, because the money comes not from central resources but from effectively withdrawing funds from other areas.

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One point that needs to be made, which comes back to a point that was made earlier, is that we do not at the moment have objective tests of local policing need to which the formula can respond. That is the case in shire authorities and in London. My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has experience of identifying policing need in his constituency to which the Metropolitan police cannot respond.

Simon Hughes: To reinforce my hon. Friend's point, we have put to the Government a helpful suggestion that would not divide parties, which is that there should be some objective impartial advisory body, such as a standing conference on policing, or any formula that the Government would wish, whereby people throughout England and Wales could determine, separately for Wales and England, and then across the forces in each country, what the communities, on advice, believe that they need. In Southwark, three Members of Parliament—two Labour and one Liberal Democrat—the local authority and the police, came to the view that we needed 1,000 police. We have about 750. How can we go from 750 to 1,000 if we are never given the ability to negotiate with the Government on that basis?

Mr. Heath: My hon. Friend makes a good point. In response, I offer another, which concerns the balance between urban and rural areas—the point made by the hon. Member for Gedling. That happens when we have joint force areas. The problems of policing big cities are obvious. The chief constable makes perfectly rational decisions about the deployment of resources within his area to fight big crime, but the effect of that is to reduce to almost nothing the visibility and presence of policing in the rural and peripheral areas. That also happens in smaller shire forces, where there is a central city with a crime profile such as there is in Nottinghamshire. We have not yet adequately addressed that. That is why it is so difficult for local populations to accept huge increases in council tax for the police as a result of the formula.

The Minister says, "It's nothing to do with me, guv. It is for the local police authorities." It beggars belief that anyone would be taken in by that. It is as if all the police authorities had suddenly taken collective leave of their senses and decided to inflict huge council tax increases for no good reason.

I do not want to embarrass the Minister with his own Hampshire police authority, but in a letter to the Home Office the Treasurer of the Hampshire police authority says:

There has been an increase of 20 per cent. in Hampshire, 20 per cent. in Dorset and 22.9 per cent. for the Metropolitan police area. In Avon and Somerset, my own authority, the increase is 30 per cent.

How do I explain to a person living on a fixed income, perhaps a pensioner, in a village in my constituency that they are paying 30 per cent. extra but they will not see any extra police officers because they are all going to Bristol because that is what the chief constable and the Home Office have decided is the priority? Bristol is an hour and a half's drive away and, frankly, pensioners in

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villages in my constituency could not give a damn what is happening in Bristol. What they want to see is police officers in their villages and streets.

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