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5 Feb 2003 : Column 328—continued

Mr. Chope: I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity in his short winding-up speech to explain what increase he would consider acceptable in the police precept in Hampshire and whether he believes that a 19.6 per cent. increase is acceptable in Dorset.

The people of Dorset earn some of the lowest average wages in the country. Dorset is 25th out of 32 county council areas, yet the people face the highest per capita contribution to the costs of policing and highest percentage of police costs in the country. That is why there is so much pressure on them. They want to know why they have to finance the increases when they already pay more than the people of London towards the costs of policing. They are told that they live in a safe area, are responsible, participate in neighbourhood watch and support the police. The police tell the people that they need to increase the precept by 19.6 per cent. to maintain the service.

At a meeting with the chief constable, I asked how pensioners could cut their expenditure to afford such increases. She was unable to answer the question. Perhaps the Minister will explain how ordinary residents in Dorset can cut their living expenditure to afford the extra charges to which Government policies lead. Through a stealth wealth tax, the Government are redistributing resources from areas that have high house prices and low wages to other areas where the needs do not warrant such redistribution.

What does a council or police authority do when such circumstances arise? A business would examine its costs and consider what could be cut. As I tried to say in my intervention on the Minister, one of the options for Dorset police authority is to consider staffing. Its additional costs include the 1 per cent. increase in employer's national insurance contributions and a substantial increase in pension requirements.

The police authority could cut all overtime; that might save approximately £1.7 million. It could freeze recruitment. If it did that, it would suffer double jeopardy, because the Minister would withdraw money from the crime fighting fund that had previously been given to Dorset. He confirmed that in his response to my intervention.

Far from giving police authorities freedom to determine matters for themselves, the Government bind them completely. If they try to exercise freedom to reduce their costs and thereby the burden on their local population, they get a double penalty from the Government, who will withdraw specific funds that they had previously made available.

All that reinforces the strong argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) for our belief that it would be much fairer for the Government to decide how much to allocate to police authorities and then let them decide how to spend it. At present the Government are giving more and more money to themselves, withholding

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police authority money and then handing out that money in donations for which they expect local people to be grateful. They are distorting the balance of police expenditure, and imposing on police authorities an enormously wasteful process of bidding for the available funds. We in Dorset are notoriously unsuccessful in securing the extra money.

We are in a desperate situation. I hope that when the Minister visits Bournemouth for his party conference he will see at first hand local police officers' dismay at the intolerable pressure to which they are subject. They are having to tell local people "We want more money". The people say "We cannot afford it". Meanwhile, the police are under enormous pressure to provide and improve services. As a result, disillusionment with the police is increasing phenomenally.

The Minister will have seen the latest Home Office figures. They reveal that public confidence in the police is declining rapidly—public confidence in their ability to control the yob culture, and in their ability to clear up crime. The fact that the police are being required to increase local taxation to such an extent while not being able to improve services will only increase the disillusionment that I have described.

Today the Government produced a report entitled "Sustainable communities in the South West". According to page 5,

Below is a diagram showing that in my constituency the ratio of lower quartile house prices to regional lower quartile income is more than 7.5 per cent. That is the problem we are experiencing in Dorset, and despite the strongest possible representations to the Government they seem unwilling to listen or respond in any positive way.

We are angry in Dorset. We want to do more than just vote against the grant settlement. I am delighted that an all-party group of MPs is campaigning for a fair deal for Dorset.

3.43 pm

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): I welcome this positive statement, but as a Gwent Member I must express some disappointment. For some time Gwent has been disadvantaged by the funding formula, and Gwent police and Gwent Members had hoped for a significant improvement in 2003–04. Gwent's chief constable agrees.

Gwent's police force, like others, faces a number of unavoidable cost increases. Increases related to pension requirements, larger pay awards and larger national insurance contributions loom on the horizon. Moreover, Gwent wants to introduce a new communications system for its officers, which is bound to prove expensive. However, it is important to stress that, in addition to such costs, Gwent police will face new demands as a result of the introduction of the Government's legislation. We all welcome that legislation, but nevertheless it has severe cost implications.

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We also need to acknowledge the fact that Gwent faces considerable social deprivation. Some 60 per cent. of the Gwent area is classified by the European Union as objective 1: in other words, its gross domestic product is less than 75 per cent. of the EU average. That means that much of that area has acute social problems. Unfortunately, antisocial behaviour is increasing dramatically, and there is an increase in drug-related crime. For example, in certain communities in my constituency, as many as 90 per cent. of house burglaries are related to drugs and the need of those who are dependent on them to have the income to fund their habit. The Minister must take these problems into account in coming to a fair and just settlement.

For many of the people whom I represent, increasing the number of police on the streets is the acid test of whether the fight against crime is succeeding. Extra resources are needed, and if they are not forthcoming, there will be no alternative to a very large increase in council tax precepts. The figure of 26 per cent. has been mentioned, and it is unrealistic. It is an unacceptably large sum to ask of council tax payers in an area such as Gwent. Moreover, such a scenario is doubly unfair on Gwent police authority, because it is one of the best performing authorities in the country. I believe that success should be rewarded, not penalised—an argument that is strengthened when we consider the authority's success over the past couple of years or more in tackling crime and improving efficiency levels.

I want to take this opportunity to highlight a particular demand that is being placed on the police. Torfaen is inside the Gwent police area, and its MP is my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is also Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We all welcome that fact, but being an extremely conscientious constituency MP, he rightly spends a fair amount of his time there, which has policing implications. The Gwent police force has made representations to the Home Office on that very point, but they seem not to have been taken into account in calculating resources for the area.

As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) said, certain quarters in Wales—significantly, that includes all four of its chief constables—are demanding that policing become a devolved responsibility: in other words, they are arguing for a major extension of the devolution settlement. Personally, I have an open mind on the matter. We need to look at the pros and cons in an objective and detached manner, and to work out what is the best way forward. However, it is worrying to note that the four chief constables are now in favour of an extension of devolution so far as policing is concerned because they are not satisfied with central Government's funding arrangements. That issue has to be addressed.

There is no doubt in my mind that policing is becoming more effective throughout the country, and particularly in Gwent. Crime detection levels are improving, and the problem of high absenteeism is being tackled firmly. Savings are also being made in other areas. The Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent divisions are being successfully merged, which is freeing up resources and, in effect, allowing seven extra police officers to go on the beat. That is warmly to be welcomed.

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I return to the point that I made earlier. We can talk about statistics and trot out figures, but many people come to a judgment on whether policing is improving on the basis of what they see happening in their local communities, and the perception in many of the communities that I represent is that crime is still a problem and that antisocial behaviour, in particular, is increasing. The Government are focusing their legislative programme on tackling those problems. However, it is not just about having the laws or the willpower—we need the resources to back them up. That is why, although there is much in the settlement that I welcome, there is certainly room for improvement as far as Gwent is concerned.

Finally, will the Minister look again at providing extra resources to allow for adequate policing to take into account the security of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he is in his constituency? That is a justifiable demand, and I hope that he will take it seriously and consider it carefully.

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