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5 Feb 2003 : Column 341—continued

4.29 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said that policing was a priority. It is certainly a priority for my constituents. Crime and the fear of crime are one of the most important issues facing hon. Members. It is significant, too, that in a short debate three hon. Members from Wales have wanted to take part because of the concern about the settlement in Wales. The headline figure of 6.2 per cent. seemed very encouraging when it was announced, but the average figure of 3.7 per cent. for police authorities is not so encouraging. The base figure of 3 per cent. for, I think, 19 authorities was very discouraging.

The Minister announced today that there would be some added support for the Dyfed-Powys and South Wales police authorities. That is very encouraging, but we will have to consider the detail of that announcement. Before Christmas, we were encouraged when he announced that he had saved the rural policing fund. He is now trying to claim credit for retaining that fund, but the Government's initial intention was to lump it in with all the rest of the funds so that the money would be distributed by the same formula. At the time of the announcement, I said that the money would improve funding in Dyfed Powys, but that we did not know whether it would solve the problem. It certainly did not do so.

Three hon. Members from Wales have contributed and all of them mentioned that the four chief constables in Wales have concluded that there is an argument for devolving police powers to the National Assembly for Wales. That surprises me, as I first mentioned the subject about a year ago, but at that time, none of the chief constables took that view. There is an argument for devolving the powers, but operational issues should be taken into account as well as funding ones. There is great co-ordination among the different police authorities in Wales, as well as across the borders with authorities in England. In the Dyfed-Powys police authority area and my constituency, relationships with West Mercia in particular are very good.

While my constituency and Dyfed Powys generally are not a high crime area, people have concerns about crime. It is estimated that more than 12 per cent. of crimes in the area are committed by travelling criminals. Such people travel a long way to reach the area because it is isolated and sparsely populated and they see opportunities to commit crimes that they think would be more difficult in other areas. However, the clear-up rate of the Dyfed-Powys police authority is absolutely superb. The fact that that rate is so good is a huge deterrent for criminals who believe that they can commit crimes in the area.

Before the funding announcement was made we were very concerned, as the initial 3 per cent. increase would not have covered even the Police Negotiating Board agreement, the pensions issue and national insurance, all of which have been dealt with in great detail in this

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debate. There was a clawback of £21 million from the Assembly in the Home Office Welsh policing fund transfer. Although that was mitigated to some extent by the transferral of £8 million from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, it meant that police authorities in Wales were receiving considerably less from the Assembly this year than they received in previous years.

The costs of pay and price inflation, increased superannuation and increased insurance, which have all been mentioned, as well as statutory compliance issues and the fact that we live in a nation that is obsessed with litigation and taking action against public authorities, would have meant that the authority needed to raise £5.4 million to maintain the same standard of service. It would have wanted to improve services. Indeed, it sought more resources to combat drug and gun crime, domestic violence, child abuse and child pornography. It appears that those services will be on standstill this year, instead of making progress. In terms of personnel cuts, that deficit would have resulted in the loss of more than 200 officers. Obviously, no police authority would countenance such a situation.

Mr. Denham: I must make it clear that the £5.1 million that I have announced today is exactly the same money that I said before Christmas would be provided to ensure that the floor was 3 per cent. I do not want to give the impression that there is an additional announcement today because I would get into deep trouble later.

Mr. Williams: I am very glad that the Minister made that clear because he certainly would have been held to account later, but the points that I am making still stand very strongly.

The hon. Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger), who is sitting with the Minister, is involved in the Dyfed Powys area, and he will be pleased to know that our constituents will face a 28.2 per cent. increase in their council tax police precept. Council tax is a very nasty, regressive form of taxation that bears more severely on the poor and less well off in our society, so they will bear the cost not of improving policing, but of maintaining the same policing as before.

I recently joined some of the police in my constituency in Knighton—a relatively remote community. Two policemen were on duty, serving a 20-mile radius where two public events were held that night at different locations. I went on to Llandrindod Wells, and was present when the shift changeover briefing took place. I was very impressed with the policing, but there were no policemen on duty in another community about 20 miles away, where another public event was taking place. So we cannot say that we are over-policed, and we will certainly want to return to that issue.

In the past few years, we have seen an improvement in the service that we receive, but I am sure that this settlement and today's announcement will do nothing to increase people's confidence that that improvement will continue.

4.36 pm

Mr. Paice : With the leave of the House, I shall respond to the debate. I am glad that all those hon. Members who wished to speak could do so and that we find ourselves with plenty of time. I will give the Minister

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plenty of time, so that he has no excuse not to reply to all the issues raised during the debate. I am surprised that there was rather a dearth of Labour Members speaking. [Interruption.] The Minister holds out his hands as if to accept that they are all happy. One would have thought that they could have found two or three from their vast ranks to say that they were happy; or perhaps they have all been lent on so much that, with a few notable exceptions, they were persuaded not to express their concerns about the proposals.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, quite rightly, that some top slicing is acceptable—of course it is. Giving out money simply to take it back for central services, such as the National Criminal Intelligence Service, is clearly sensible. The concerns that I expressed in my opening remarks were very much aimed at those areas where money is kept back by the Government to be sent down the line, but only if it is strictly spent according to the way that the Home Secretary wishes it to be spent.

Mr. Lansley: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the legitimate purposes of top slicing expenditure and holding it at the centre might be, for example, so that no ceiling has to be applied to grants? Some £2.3 million extra would have been available to Cambridgeshire police service—this affects him and me—if the ceiling had not been applied. Top slicing would have allowed that to happen without necessarily prejudicing the position of those who are subject to a floor, thus protecting them.

Mr. Paice: As my hon. Friend knows, speaking from the Dispatch Box slightly constrains one from going too far down the road of one's self-interest, but I understand, and of course support, the point that he makes. In fact, it reminds me of another concern.

Much of today's debate has been about the council tax rises, which the Minister studiously avoided, although I hope that he tells us in his concluding remarks the Treasury's expectation of the general council tax rise resulting from the settlement, notwithstanding, quite rightly, that the final decision must lay with individual police authorities in terms of their precept. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) in particular, there are those that face swingeing penalties or cuts in their money. People may also face a 46 per cent. council tax increase. Increases of 10 to 20 per cent. seem commonplace to me, and there are certainly several above that.

Such increases, if we are to face them, will build on last year's similar increases. Indeed, last year there was an increase in my authority area of about 39 per cent., and if that continues it will represent a significant shift in police funding from central Government to the council tax payer. I was going to make the point later, but I shall make it now: that, of course, may all be part of the Government's conspiracy to increase taxes without it being so obvious—the stealth taxation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) referred.

There is a more serious point. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's local government department is carrying out a study of the funding balance in local

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services between locally and centrally raised moneys. I would be grateful if the Minister told us whether police funding is included in the study, which is clearly relevant to police force funding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne also referred to the problem of recruitment around London, as did one or two other Members and the Minister. A few weeks ago, I was encouraged to discover that the Minister himself has been involved in talks aimed at resolving it, and I can say only that I hope he succeeds. It is a serious issue, and to underplay it at any time or to pretend that it can be resolved only locally would be a mistake. In that context, I am pleased that he is taking an interest in trying to find a solution that is acceptable not just to all the police authorities around or close to London, but to the Met, which could suddenly find itself disadvantaged by the very changes he advocates.

My hon. Friend mentioned the business of the transition, to which I also referred, as to whether the floors and ceilings are to be phased out and whether police authorities will have to comply with the new formula. I hope that the Minister responds on that. My constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), made the critical point, which no one else had made, that April's national insurance contributions rise will hit the police force, and hit it hard. There is no reference in any document that I have seen to the Home Office paying any regard to that in its decisions on totality of support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) referred to the perversity—I can put it no differently—of a Minister complaining about an apparently low precept as if there was something wrong with levying a low precept. That reminds me of my district council. When the Liberals took control, they decided as a matter of policy to raise council tax to the average of that of all other districts. Regardless of whether that was necessary or wise, they thought that they should raise the council tax. It is a perverse approach to managing public moneys.

It is clear that council tax payers across the country now face another series of rises in police precepts far in excess of inflation. Few of the increases will be in single figures—almost all will be 10 per cent. or more, and many will exceed 20 per cent. That represents another increase in the remorseless pressure on the council tax payer. By intent or by accident, the Government are shifting the burden on to local people, and the more that burden is shifted, the more local people will demand of what they believe they are paying for.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire said, people who live in rural areas accept—probably rightly—that it might be their lot not to get the number of police officers that they see in city centres. However, whether people live in urban areas or in rural areas, if in their council tax they pay more and more towards the police, they will expect to see more for the money. They will expect to see more police officers on the beat. They will expect a police officer to appear on their doorstep if they phone to say that they have been the victim of crime; they will not expect merely to be given an incident number over the phone, as is sadly commonplace now.

That is the reality—that is what will happen as a result of the Government's changes, and as it happens, so the Government as its architects will become ever more

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unpopular. That prospect pleases me no end, but it does not mean that the Government's approach is right. It is clear to me that the public are beginning to lose confidence in the quality of their policing. The problem extends way beyond the issue of money, but the more the public are asked to pay for their policing, the more they will expect to get in return. So far, we have seen little to suggest that the Government are able to deliver something meaningful to the people on the ground—more visible policing, better rates of detection, and increased general acceptance by the large numbers of people to whom the sight of a police officer is a rare event.

I cannot support a set of proposals that shift the burden so far on to the local taxpayer while retaining ever more to the centre for central command and control. That is why the Opposition will oppose the motion.

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