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5 Feb 2003 : Column 331—continued

3.51 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I listened with great care to what the Minister had to say in the hope that I could tear up this speech, but unfortunately, I heard nothing new. His comments this afternoon and the figures that he finally produced this week are exactly the same as those that he used when he launched his consultation exercise. It is now crystal clear that all the representations made by my community, all the meetings that we held and all the pleadings that we made have been ignored. It is now crystal clear that screwing Surrey is Government policy. What is going on as far as my county is concerned is a disgrace, and the Minister should be ashamed of himself.

Surrey has the worst settlement in the country. I am not going to get into a bidding war, because we just went down that route. The new system of which the Minister is so proud has savaged Surrey's grant. Without the floor of which he is so proud, we would have lost £14.6 million. That does not mean that we would not have got an extra £14.6 million, but that we would have got £14.6 million less than we are getting in the current year. Let me spell out to the Minister what that means. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that in due course the Minister will phase out these transitional arrangements. If he does not implement the new formula, what is the point of having it? When the transition ends, the £14.6 million savaged from Surrey's budget means—I am quoting the chief constable—that there will be between 450 and 500 fewer police officers. That is a 25 per cent. reduction in the police officer strength of the Surrey police force. If the Minister wants to dance to the Dispatch Box now or when he winds up to say that Surrey has more police officers than they used to have before his dreadful Government came to power, let me remind him that that is because of the addition of one whole division from the Metropolitan police. So he

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cannot crow about extra numbers. If he carries out his policy, we will lose 25 per cent. of our police officers. That is what his new grant system means.

Mr. Denham indicated dissent.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister might well shake his head, because he ought to be ashamed of what he has done over the past five years. The threat to cut a quarter of the strength of my county comes on top of a cut in real terms of 14 per cent. over the past five years. At least the Minister is consistent—he is continuing to savage Surrey police, and I hope that he is ashamed of himself.

The Minister does not like it and will try to dispute it, but I am only giving him the facts. Even if he wants to ignore all that, let us talk about his wonderful, generous 3 per cent., of which he is so proud and wants people to think is helpful. It is not. Let me tell the Minister what that really means in Surrey. Again, I quote the chief constable and the police authority. Earlier, the Minister said that all the wonderful new conditions and pay are fully funded. Not in Surrey, they are not, according to the police authority. The authority has additional costs of which the Minister has not taken account. The national insurance increase is not funded either.

Moreover, I am told that, in Surrey, the increase that has been agreed for next year will amount not to 3 per cent. but to 1.4 per cent. only. That 1.4 per cent. will have to cover the national insurance increase, the extra pension costs, and inflation. I am not a maths genius, but funding all those costs with a 1.4 per cent. increase seems to me to amount to a real-terms cut in the money that the Government give to Surrey police.

Even that is not enough to get the Government to see sense. Police forces in the south-east face cost of living problems that the Government refuse to acknowledge. In the current year, Surrey will lose 14 per cent. of its police officers.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman says that the Government refuse to acknowledge problems with the cost of living, but what is the additional cost of living allowance paid in Surrey today? What was it under the previous Government? I think that he will find that there was no such allowance previously.

Mr. Wilshire: The Minister goes round and round that particular course. I have been in a meeting with him when I and other hon. Members explained that no account was being taken of the fact that the Surrey force and other forces in the south-east were losing officers to the Metropolitan police, and elsewhere.

This year, Surrey police will lose 14 per cent. of its officers to other forces. That will cost another £14 million on top of all the other problems that it faces, and the Government will do nothing about it. The cost of the formula change, of the underfunding of the increased costs, of inflation and of losing staff—which the Government do not acknowledge—adds up to a problem for the Surrey police authority. If the authority is to deliver exactly the same service that it delivers at the moment—and whether that is adequate for the community's needs invites a range of questions—it will cost £13.7 million more than it gets from the new grant and last year's precept.

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When the Minister replies to the debate, will he tell my constituents which course of action he prefers? Should Surrey police authority cut the service that it gives because the Government will not fund it, or should it raise the precept by 46 per cent.? That is what it will cost to maintain the status quo.

The Minister looks glum: well he may, but I sincerely hope that he has the guts to give my constituents the answers that they want.

I am a realist. I know when I am screwed by the Government, as do my constituents. We understand that the Government could not care less about Surrey, and that they will make the cuts whatever we say. However, does the Minister ever have a pang of conscience in a quiet moment? If so, I have a few suggestions for him as to what to do.

Let the Minister prove me wrong about his not wanting to help with costs in the south-east. Let him stand up and say that he will do something about the matter. Let him stand up and say that he will use some capital money to make it possible for us to make loans to police officers, so that they can buy houses that they otherwise could not afford. Let him say that he will help us to make transport freely available to police officers, as happens in the Metropolitan police. Let him say that he will impose disincentives on other police forces that raid the Surrey strength for their own ends—that is, saving on training costs.

For my constituents, the statement is catastrophic. It contains nothing to be pleased about at all. It means one of two things: a cut in our policing or a 46 per cent. increase in the precept. If the Government do not repent, it will, in due course, mean 25 per cent. fewer officers, in addition to the present cuts.

The reality of the settlement is the opposite of Labour's slogan, "Tough on the causes of crime"; the settlement is tough on the Surrey police and even tougher on the victims of crime.

4 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this short debate.

Crime and antisocial behaviour are overwhelmingly of priority concern to my constituents, as was shown by a survey that I carried out recently. My constituents, like people throughout the country, were horrified and appalled by the new sentencing policy for so-called first-time burglars. My constituents have strong views on such issues, as well as an unshakeable belief that greater numbers of police officers on the beat are a major way of tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

I am participating in the debate mainly because on 20 January I asked a question at Home Office Question Time, but received such an inadequate response from the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), that I immediately made a point of order recording my intention of raising the matter on the Adjournment of the House. As I have been unsuccessful so far, I thought that this debate would be a good opportunity to make the points that I wanted to make.

The Government are, in essence, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Whatever the figures for extra funding, they are totally dwarfed by the

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£9.6 million loss that the Sussex police authority calculates will arise from the changes to grant distribution and calculation. That will make an enormous difference to policing in Sussex and the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety should be aware of that. Perhaps he cares as little about Sussex as he does about Surrey, but he should be aware of the consequences of the settlement.

The non-answer that I received from the Under-Secretary on 20 January obviously so embarrassed him that he wrote to me on the very next day to try to set out the figures for grant and other funding for the Sussex police authority. To be fair, there will be additional moneys for Airwave, capital funding and other things that have already been mentioned in the debate. The Under-Secretary informed me that the Sussex police authority

I shall deal with that point in more detail later.

The letter ended, however, by complaining that the precept level in Sussex

In other words, there was a clear invitation to the Sussex police authority to make a sharp increase in its precept for the coming year—as if the local government settlement was not enough to contend with.

We have already heard that, because of the so-called ceiling, about 17 police authorities received less funding than would have been allocated under the needs-based formula. More than half the mythical 6.2 per cent. increase in funding will be allocated by central Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) pointed out. It is appalling for the Government constantly to mouth the words "decentralisation" and "devolution" while, in reality, through the Home Office, they are centralising more and more power over policing in Sussex and elsewhere.

Revenue funding from central Government for investment by individual police authorities will increase by only £275 million, or 3.7 per cent.—which is somewhat lower than 6.2 per cent. That £275 million includes the money that the Government are making available for implementation of the Police Negotiating Board agreement. We know—because the police authorities tell us—that their revenue expenditure will have to increase by more than £482 million just to stand still.

There is a real funding gap. It is driven by inflationary and pay pressures, which alone produce an actual requirement of £137 million more than the increase in total standard spending, and by the rising cost of pensions, which will add a further £70 million to police costs.

In a letter of 10 January, David Rogers, the chair of Sussex police authority had this to say to the Deputy Prime Minister:

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He goes on to say that things are made more difficult for Sussex because the authority has taken on board the views of my constituents and other residents in Sussex and decided to respond to those concerns and increase the number of officers.

It was not always thus. The previous chief constable had other priorities, but Ken Jones has made it clear in his relatively short time as chief constable that he believes to an extent in what I call—this is not his phrase—old-fashioned policing and certainly has a view about the number of police officers enforcing the law. The view of the residents has been reflected in the actions of the police authority, yet as the letter from Councillor Rogers says:

He is saying that the Government are hampering Sussex in trying to meet the Government's targets.

Councillor Rogers goes on to say that the methodology will

He concludes:

Perhaps even more pointed are the comments of the chief constable, Ken Jones. He said in a letter to me of October last year:

I might point out that that was the number of police officers in 1997—

The chief constable of Sussex says that his target is to return to the number of police officers that we had when the Conservative Government left office. One might think that that is a modest target, but at least it is a target. He also says that his ability even to reach that modest target is being significantly hampered by this settlement.

The other day, I went out on patrol with the community street wardens who were introduced in Eastbourne under the initiative—I welcomed it at the time—of the then Conservative-controlled borough council. I was very impressed by their dedication and local knowledge, but coverage of the patrol in the local newspaper provoked quite a lot of mail from constituents. Most of the comments were along the lines of "We never see them", "There should be more of them" and "Why don't we have them in our area?" The key was always to avoid raising expectations about what a difference those wardens could make to tackling

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criminality and antisocial behaviour. They do have a role, but my constituents are bright enough to recognise that such wardens are no substitute for the real thing: plenty of trained police officers on the beat.

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