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5 Feb 2003 : Column 336—continued

4.9 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): At its conference in Bournemouth last year, the Police Federation told me in no uncertain terms that one of the police's biggest problems, which has been mentioned already, is the endless paperwork. I urge the Minister and his officials to work closely with the Police Federation to cut the amount of needless paperwork that prevents police officers from doing what they do best out on the beat. I understand that the statutory requirements in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and elsewhere are unavoidable, but much of the paperwork could be done away with. That should be a priority.

Not so long ago I had a meeting with the Minister. One of the main points that I made was about the rural grant remaining at a standstill this year. Standstill is not acceptable to police forces that have to rely on the rural grant. The grant does not take into account inflationary rises, fuel price rises—the current ones and the drastic ones that we are likely to face in the coming months—the added cost of servicing high-mileage vehicles in rural areas and the huge insurance hikes since 11 September. All those factors are relevant to the rural policing grant, yet none of them has made any impression on the Government.

This is one of those areas of financing in which sleight of hand always appears. In some areas, the 6.9 per cent. comes down to 3.3 per cent., and in other areas, such as north Wales, to 4.65 per cent. We have already heard about the 3 per cent. floor; in north Wales, the net amount being announced is less than the 3 per cent. floor. Central grants are insufficient to meet even standstill costs, and will inevitably result—as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House—in high council tax increases. We all know, however, that the demands on policing activity are increasing. There is a strong—and correct—demand from the public for community-based policing. That, too, is not recognised in the central funding.

There are faults in the North Wales police authority settlement. For example, security measures for Holyhead and Mostyn ports—PFI costs have been incurred—have not been included in the figure. The authority's increase is, in effect, only 2 per cent. Any fool can see that that is well below the 3 per cent. floor figure.

Mr. Denham indicated dissent.

Mr. Llwyd: The Minister shakes his head. I do not want to bandy figures in the Chamber, as that would be inappropriate. Undoubtedly, he will write to me at some point. If I am wrong, I will accept that I am wrong.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is right in one part and wrong in the other. If I can, I will deal with his points when I sum up; otherwise, I will write to him.

Mr. Llwyd: Okay. I am a living curate's egg.

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My point is that grants are insufficient. A complication with the Welsh police forces is the interaction with the National Assembly for Wales. That may be where the grey area lies, I know not.

The position in north Wales is serious. As I say, the grants are insufficient. Nationally agreed pay rises will amount to £3.1 million; police reform costs—imposed on the police authority by recent legislation—will amount to £1.8 million; national insurance increases will amount to £600,000; increases because of general inflation will amount to £300,000; and pensions will amount to £800,000. All in all, an increase of 8.4 per cent. is required just to stand still. When that is compared with the 4.6 per cent. that is being offered, anyone can see that there will be a squeeze somewhere. The likely impact of trying to stand still will be a rise of 23.9 per cent. in council tax precept. That will come on top of recent increases.

North Wales is a very good police authority that performs very well. Arrests last year increased by about 20 per cent. and detection rates and public satisfaction also increased significantly. It is a good police force and it wants to continue to police well, but it does not see how it will be able to do so if that means having to slam the council tax payer with an inordinate demand year on year.

There is a high demand for community policing. The crime fighting fund has been useful; it would be churlish of me to say otherwise. A total of 103 community beat managers are in post. I hope that that will continue. However, that would probably mean an increase in band D levels of about 31.5 per cent. That is a staggering figure, although not as bad as some that we have heard today. I urge on the Minister root-and-branch reform of the way in which police forces are financed.

The Minister's announcement about the recent increases for the Dyfed-Powys and South Wales police forces is welcome. I am sure that the increases will make a significant difference for those authorities, but I again plead the case of the North Wales force. According to my figures, it will receive well below 3 per cent. If I am right, there is a case for taking a similar approach towards the North Wales police. Perhaps we can discuss that at another stage.

Dyfed-Powys police will be satisfied, to a certain degree, with today's announcement; it goes part of the way to addressing its problems. The implementation of the Police Negotiating Board agreement will cost the authority £1 million, and the cost of police pensions in Dyfed will increase by £590,000—a substantial sum. It is probably the same for every authority, but a standstill grant under the rural policing fund hits a rural authority such as Dyfed-Powys a bit harder. I met the chief constable of Dyfed-Powys on Monday, and he was very concerned. I am sure that today's announcement will allay some of his fears.

South Wales police force says that it has fallen below the figure of 3 per cent., and the Minister has recognised that today. It was talking of a 15.2 per cent. increase in police precepts, but I hope that that will not now have to happen.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) referred to Gwent police. To say the least, he was not exactly jumping for joy at the settlement offered to his authority, which will receive an increase of 4.86 per

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cent., or 3.8 per cent. in real terms. It will face unavoidable increases in costs of 9.3 per cent. and they will probably result in an increase in the band D charge of 26.23 per cent.

The argument runs that, if we want local policing, we must be prepared to pay for it locally. However, I am afraid that that argument is somewhat disingenuous, because all these costs are being slammed on the council tax payer at the same time as UK-wide initiatives are being thrust on authorities. We also know what costs have been incurred as the result of recent legislation. I urge the Minister to reconsider the way in which local authorities are financed. It is done by sleight of hand, and it is unfair for council tax payers to have to bear all the burden if extraneous factors mean that added costs are thrust upon local authorities.

I refer to what was said by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and for Caerphilly. I am the son of a police officer and the brother of a serving police officer and I know that they are perhaps not the most radical people; they are sometimes conservative. However, when four chief constables from Wales say that it is now time to devolve responsibility for policing to the National Assembly for Wales, that means something. They do not normally man the barricades and protest with we mad nationalists, but they have come to the conclusion that the present position is unsatisfactory. There is always this sleight of hand and a time-consuming struggle between one authority and another and between local authorities and the central authority. The National Assembly has also been introduced into the formula.

If chief constables are making that argument, there must be reasons for it. I fully endorse their view, and not just for political reasons; there are common-sense reasons, too. With respect to the Minister, the settlement that has been announced bears no relation whatever to the way in which it has been spun.

4.19 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Almost annually, major criminal justice Bills occupy much of the House's attention. In fact, this week, a Standing Committee is debating this Session's Criminal Justice Bill, the purpose of which is to add to sentencing policy and to reform it.

I entirely agree with my constituents. They regard the achievement of greater success in the fight against crime and in providing reassurance to the public as resting to a greater extent on the level of local policing and on the effectiveness of local police forces than on the criminal justice system and the level of sentencing. They probably attach more importance to criminals being caught than they do to the length of any sentences that may be imposed. The issue therefore does not deserve scant parliamentary attention. It deserves substantial attention, if not today, then as we proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) talked about our policy, to which I shall return in a moment. When we consider policy in future, I hope that we will not talk about criminal justice policy primarily in terms of sentencing policy but in terms of policing policy and the effectiveness of policing.

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When we debate the police grant report, we tend to focus on financial matters, and I am afraid that I am no exception. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I do not want to pass up the opportunity to express Cambridgeshire's appreciation for Home Office support. The costs involved in Operation Fincham and dealing with animal rights protests are ongoing, and I hope that Home Office Ministers will continue to be helpful in meeting those costs. If the university of Cambridge was permitted after a planning appeal to go ahead with the construction of a neurological and behavioural centre at 307, Huntingdon road in my constituency, the Cambridgeshire police would, I suspect, have a job maintaining public order, which would be expensive without Home Office support. There has been full support for their efforts at Huntingdon Life Sciences, and I hope that there will be similar support at the new centre if required.

One thing I do not want to be in this debate and the following debate on local government finance is churlish. When I came to the House in 1997, my first Adjournment debate was on the area cost adjustment, and I bored for Britain on the subject until we got this year's settlement, when Cambridgeshire was finally included in the area cost adjustment. It is simply not the case that the Members speaking in the debate are those whose police authority has received a grant increase at the floor—Cambridgeshire has received a grant increase at the ceiling of 4.9 per cent. or £3.4 million, which is a direct consequence of the change in the distribution formula and the inclusion of Cambridgeshire in the area cost adjustment, even if it is offset by the changes in resource equalisation and so on.

Curiously, that demonstrates the effect of distributional factors. Last year, Cambridgeshire police authority was at the floor, but is at the ceiling this year. The way in which the Government distribute grant has a substantial impact on our ability to fund local policing. I am afraid, however, that we need to consider more than just the distribution of grant, welcome as the change in the area cost adjustment is. We must also consider the costs that must be met. By way of illustration, in the coming financial year Cambridgeshire police must meet increased costs of £665,000 on pay; £908,000 in relation to the changes in the Police Reform Act; £1.472 million in pension changes; and £676,000 in costs for support staff, pay, allowances, national insurance and so on. Those sums total £3.7 million, including £500,000 for the increase in national insurance alone. That £3.7 million is more than the increase of £3.4 million in Government grant.

One or two Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), alluded to the curious fact that, in response to parliamentary questions put to Ministers since the announcement in early December, the Home Office claims to have made no estimate of the impact of pay and pension changes on police authorities and the police service when deciding the level of grant.

It is as if the Home Office were operating in a vacuum, where its decisions in respect of pensions or the Police Negotiating Board are extraneous to the distribution of grant. They should not be; they should be integral to it.

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Police numbers, of course, are what this is all about. In Cambridgeshire, the police authority will have to absorb all those costs and make substantial savings elsewhere in order simply to maintain the level of policing. I should say "the number of officers" rather than "the level of policing", because one reduction may well be in police overtime.

Maintaining police numbers is definitely what it is about. What is frustrating me and others in Cambridgeshire is that last year, for example, the Government would have claimed that they were adding police officers there, because the crime fighting fund was funding a specific level of officers; but in practice the only way in which the number of police in Cambridgeshire could be supported last year was through a 40 per cent. increase in the local precept. If there had been anything less, not only would the money not have been available to support the number of police, but the position would have been worsened, because the Government would have started taking money away from the crime fighting fund, so there would have been a progressive deceleration in funding but for that increase in precept.

The idea that local representatives determine the level of resources devoted locally to policing was a complete fiction last year. Such resources were essentially determined by the structure of the Government's support and the structure of the crime fighting fund. Even this year, in the light of the increases in costs, and notwithstanding the reductions in expenditure, including reducing overtime, deferring capital expenditure, not replacing vehicles and so on, we are looking at a precept increase of perhaps about 16 per cent. simply to retain the present level of policing.

I said that I would return to the question of future policy. In the country areas, including parts of my constituency, which has part of the city of Cambridge but consists substantially of country areas, we pay a great deal for policing. We understand that because of the relative levels of policing a great deal of the effort goes into Cambridge city or Peterborough, and not necessarily into the country areas. We have 16 more community beat managers, but we are still paying much more for policing than for anything remotely approaching the level that we see.

We do not begrudge the amount that follows intelligence-led policing, which seeks to identify where crime is and addresses that problem. At the same time, we want reassurance for people who are paying an increasingly substantial proportion of the total police budget, paying absolutely higher levels of precept to their police authority, and who are looking for something to be provided in their area. I want them to have that provision.

If my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is contemplating policy changes in the future, he should consider, building on the present level of policing provided by the police authority directly to the chief constable, an additional level. Through a local precept, local communities could provide for a parish constable who would meet their area's policing objectives, while not always being operationally available for the rest of the police service. That would not detract from what is available to the chief constable, but would add to it. It might cost no more than £10 or £20 per household.

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Frankly, when it comes to it, we in this place and locally are about priorities. This is a priority. We must be prepared to find the resources, even if necessary through local precepts, in order to make that happen.

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