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Police Funding

2 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I am pleased to have secured a debate that I hope is timely and of great importance to all our constituents throughout England. I am also pleased that the three major English political parties are well represented by hon. Members here today. No doubt they want to raise concerns that exist in their police authority areas and constituencies.

Crime and policing issues are probably among people's principal priorities and concerns, whether in the south-west and the Avon and Somerset constabulary area, which I represent, or others parts of the United Kingdom. No doubt such issues will be prominent in the forthcoming general election. I hope that the Government's mind is focused in particular on the 2005–06 police settlement for England and the concerns expressed recently by chief constables and police authorities about the settlement and its implications for police staffing.

I shall start by talking about general resourcing issues for the police and how those issues have changed in recent years, and go on to describe changes in manning levels that the Government have overseen in the past couple of years. I shall then discuss funding concerns and problems relating to the 2005–06 settlement, before commenting on proposals that the Government should consider if they are to try to avoid a severe funding squeeze next year. That squeeze could reverse the increase in police numbers in recent years.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Laws : It is rather early to accept interventions, but I will give way to the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I must then make some progress.

Vera Baird : In the light of the serious attempts in the consultation document yesterday to ensure more diversity in recruitment and more family-friendly training and working hours for the police—I imagine that most people would commend that—is the hon. Gentleman not the slightest bit embarrassed to talk about "manning", as if only males were in the police force?

Mr. Laws : No, I am not. I wish that I had not given way now. I shall make some progress.

The concern throughout the country about policing levels is based not just on an irrational fear of crime but on developments that have taken place in the past few decades, including the increasing volume of crime and the increasing responsibilities that have fallen on our police forces. In 1979—a useful benchmark date—there were about 2.5 million notifiable offences throughout England and Wales; that figure more than doubled to 5.6 million by 1992. There are big debates about the validity of crime statistics and problems with them, but even if we take a category of crime such as burglary, the statistics for which are more reliable than others, we can see that although the figures peaked in 1993 and have fallen for many years since, they are still significantly above 1979 levels.
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If we consider other pressures on the police in the past few years, we see that there is a series of areas that require a great deal of money, but that is not necessarily reflected in police numbers. They include the cost of DNA testing, the increasing cost of call handling given the more extensive use of mobile phones by the public, and the inexorable rise in IT costs in the police service as elsewhere. There has been a significant increase in the volume of crime in every category, which has not been reversed to the levels that we experienced in the 1970s. As I said, there have been cost increases in a host of areas, including call handling, DNA technology and other technology. Set against that, the increase in police officer numbers in the past few decades has been quite modest. We started with about 111,000 police officers in 1979 and hit a temporary peak of 127,600 in 1992. There was a small reduction in police numbers during the 1992–97 Parliament, which continued when Labour came to power in 1997 and stuck to Conservative spending plans, so that the police numbers continued to fall to about 124,000 in 2000. It is only in the past couple of years that there have been significant increases in police numbers to just below 140,000. The pressures on the police and the costs of running the police force have increased significantly over the past few decades, but the number of police officers has increased by only 25 per cent.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): My hon. Friend is talking about a range of different cost pressures on the police. I may be pre-empting him, but does he not agree that there is another significant cost? A blip in the number of officers retiring in the coming year will significantly increase the pension bill, and police forces across the country are concerned that that will have a significant impact on budgets, resulting in officers coming off the front line to fill the positions of civilians who have been made redundant.

Mr. Laws : My hon. Friend is right. I want to look at some of the pension pressures that have been affecting police authorities across the country for a number of years, but which will increase particularly in 2005–06.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman include in his litany of pressures the political pressure from the electorate, who have seen police precepts balloon because of an inflexible method of finance? Was he, like me, disappointed yesterday not to see in an otherwise excellent White Paper any reference to the possibility of direct billing from police authorities, rather than wrapping it up with all other forms of local authority provision?

Mr. Laws : I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's initial point. Hon. Members are successfully anticipating my speech. I shall therefore push ahead rapidly before I have nothing left to say, and shall allow time later for people to make points about the experience in their areas.

Turning to more recent progress—at last, police numbers have started to rise—we acknowledge that there has been an improved environment over the past couple of years. Police numbers in Avon and Somerset have risen from just under 3,000 in 1998–99 to just over
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3,400 in August this year. At the most local level in the Somerset east police district, police numbers have risen from 241 in 2001 to 278 today. There have been the additional allocations of money for the police community safety officers who are beginning to be deployed by the Government.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) made an important point when he said that the Government must not forget that many additional police resources have been paid for not out of the Government's central resources, but by people in their local area through significant increases in the police precept. In my area, for every £100 that was spent on policing in 1995–96, less than £15 was raised locally. That figure has now roughly doubled to just under £30. The increases in the police precept in Avon and Somerset were 15 per cent. in 2002–03, 34 per cent. in 2003–04 and 12 per cent. for 2004–05. The police precept has therefore increased by over 60 per cent. in the past three years alone, which is broadly representative of the experience of many areas of the country. Indeed, there are some areas that have experienced even bigger rises—there was a 52 per cent. rise in Gloucestershire in one year alone.

Many people across the country have somewhat begrudgingly paid more in their local police precept over the past few years, because they were convinced by the local police authority that additional police officers and staff would be deployed. People who have paid more in their local taxes would be particularly concerned if the ultimate settlement for the police budget in 2005–06 reverses the recent expansion of staff. Over the past few weeks, we have all been successfully lobbied by our local police forces, who have expressed concerns about the 2005–06 settlement. I suspect that the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety has received representations from the Association of Police Authorities. I met the chief constable of Avon and Somerset constabulary, Steve Pilkington, who described the experience in his area, and I have no doubt that other Members will have been briefed by their police authorities and chief constables.

There is serious concern that the nature of the settlement that the Government envisage for next year will leave a funding gap of up to £350 million in the budgets of English authorities, and that that gap can only be closed with a reduction in police officers or police staff. The driving concerns—and I will return to the Home Secretary's statement yesterday on the White Paper—are fear that next year's Government grant for police authorities could rise by as little as 3 per cent., and the associated fear that increases in the police precept will be kept down by Government diktat to the low single figures suggested by Ministers in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in a county such as Hertfordshire the standstill pressures on spending are about 6 per cent., and the new spending pressures are about 1 per cent. as a result of the cost of police surgeons, criminal record searches and so on? If the grant were 3 per cent., and there was capping of the sort to which he referred, Hertfordshire would have to make
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a saving equivalent to the cost of 170 police officers. That would be extremely unpopular, given the need for a visible police presence in our market towns and villages.

Mr. Laws : The hon. Gentleman is right. I have seen the representations from his authority, which are typical of the concerns expressed across England. That brings me neatly to my next point. The Association of Police Authorities has calculated that if the precept is kept down to 3 to 4 per cent. to paper over the fact that the Government have not yet been able to put in place a fairer mechanism than the council tax to raise local funding, and if there is a lower Government settlement, there will be a shortfall of about £350 million in the funding that police authorities have calculated that they need for the standstill budget. They need an average of 5.7 per cent., but the figure is higher for authorities that are experiencing the pension problems to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) referred. In Avon and Somerset, pension funding is a problem, because a large cohort of officers will retire next year, so the standstill settlement for Avon and Somerset has been calculated at 7.7 per cent.

The first point to make about individual areas of cost pressure and the scope for efficiency savings is that pension costs are increasing significantly across the country. In Avon and Somerset, they will go up by 50   per cent. between 1997–98 and 2004–05, from £25   million a year when Labour came to power to £37.2 million this financial year, and they will continue to rise. We appreciate that the Government are trying to tackle the historic underfunding of the police pension scheme, but that will not have any effect on the situation next year, when there will be a particular problem, as the large cohort of police officers who were recruited in the mid 1970s, are coming up for retirement, resulting in a surge of retirements in most authorities. The Minister may be interested to know that Avon and Somerset anticipates that there will be 150 retirements in 2005–06, compared with just 73 in 2004–05.

David Taylor : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem with public sector pension schemes—this does not apply to the local government scheme, but it does apply to the police scheme—is that they tend to be pay-as-you-go schemes, and are particularly vulnerable to surges in employer requirements, as certain events must be reflected actuarially in the demands on the fund in the years to come?

Mr. Laws : Yes, I agree. It is fair to point out that while individual employees pay contributions, which are obviously not ring-fenced, there is no specific employer contribution. The Government are seeking to address that matter, but they will not have done so by next year. Pension pressures are therefore a significant problem, and they could account for about £100 million of the £350 million gap.

Police authorities are examining other parts of their budgets to see where there are cost pressures and where savings could be made. More than 80 per cent. of most police authorities' costs will be staff or pension costs, so it will be difficult to cut a large proportion of costs without reducing police or staff numbers. In addition,
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there is the growing cost of technology. DNA technology has been introduced in many areas, and there are attempts to improve telephone centres to make it easier for people to contact the police, thus addressing a problem has caused a great deal of frustration throughout the country.

Many police authorities have made efficiency savings year on year for a number of years, but the proportion of efficiency savings that can be achieved in a cashable way has been reduced. Avon and Somerset has been successful in achieving its targets over recent years, but the proportion of cashable savings has gradually reduced. It therefore anticipates a funding gap of about £10.4 million in the coming year.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): If, as my hon. Friend says, the police settlement is limited to 3 per cent., and if there is a cap on the 3 per cent. precept and a standstill in the number of police officers, cuts must be made in the civilian force, which is almost a reverse of the civilianisation that is taking place at present. Police officers will be back in the office doing administrative jobs when we want their presence out on the street.

Mr. Laws : Perhaps unauthorised copies of my speech have been circulating among hon. Members, because every time they speak they anticipate what I am about to say. Given the circumstances, the only mechanism for saving money available to most chief constables is to reduce police staffing—that is certainly the position that the chief constable of Avon and Somerset has described.

There are limits on the areas of staffing that can be reduced without losing ring-fenced funds. The number of police community safety officers cannot be reduced without cutting ring-fenced money from the Government. If the police authorities decide to target back-office staff rather than police on the beat, they risk losing staff who have taken the place of the police officers whom they are trying to deploy on the beat. Consequently, even if they try to protect the number of front-line police officers, those officers could be drawn back from the beat to undertake back-office responsibilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) pointed out. One must therefore conclude that if the budget is anything like the one that is expected, there will be severe pressures on police authorities next year.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I shall make a point that my hon. Friend may not be going to make himself. Certain authorities need to increase their expenditure because they are on the front line in the war against terrorism and drugs. Merseyside, in particular, has special pressures and needs to increase expenditure, which are an additional reason why it cannot make cuts this year.

Mr. Laws : My hon. Friend is to be congratulated because I was not going to make that point. I am particularly grateful to him for raising the interests of Merseyside, as he always does so effectively.

There is always scope for examining whether the claims made by any organisation about how cuts will   fall are borne out in reality or whether they are
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worst-case scenarios. However, there is no doubt that if the assumptions about the grant from central Government and from the police precept are borne out, budgetary pressures would result in reductions in staffing in most police authorities. There would be anger throughout the country at any such staff reduction, given that people have paid much more in their police precept over the past few years.

What should the Government do about the situation? The first and most obvious point is that they must look closely at the level of settlement from central Government for English police authorities for 2005–06. I was cheered, but only slightly, by the Home Secretary's response yesterday to a question that followed his statement on the policing White Paper. He said:

In one sense, that is cheering, because the Home Secretary does not seem to be intent on a settlement as low as 3 per cent. The band seems to be between 3 per cent., which he says is too low, and 5.7 per cent., which he says is too high. Part of this debate is to try to force the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety and her colleagues towards the upper end of that spectrum.

The central Government settlement should not only deliver the specific and limited targets to which the Home Secretary referred in his statement—for example, ring-fenced police community safety officers—but protect existing staffing levels and additional police that have recently been taken on. I hope that it will at least deliver the existing level of services and the increase in officers that the Government have promised without the need for staff savings elsewhere. To do so, the figure must be closer to 5 per cent. than to the rumoured 3 per cent.

There must be specific provision for pensions. Those of us who represent police authority areas with difficult pension outlooks next year would like a supplement to the police settlement next year that reflects those pressures. There should be an amount additional to the standard uprating of the police central grant. The pension pressures will be severe next year for many authorities because of the retirement bulge that we face, so I hope that the Minister is examining that problem seriously.

I hope that the Government will consider providing greater flexibility in Home Office ring-fenced grants that, for example, pay for police community support officers. Many people will not have found entirely credible the implication in the Home Secretary's statement yesterday that the Home Office is giving more power to police authorities and that there is earned autonomy. The statement implied that authorities can do what they wish and deploy resources as they wish
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provided that they are not failing police authorities. However, at the same time, there is a whole list of ring-fenced central Government schemes, and additional targets are being introduced. The Government and the Home Office do not appear to have decided whether they believe in localism and letting people decide their priorities, or whether they want to nanny police authorities and tell them how to deploy resources, which may lead to a bizarre situation in which police authorities seek to make savings, but are penalised as a result of the ring-fenced budgets that the Home Office has earmarked for specific purposes. I therefore hope that there is additional flexibility.

Finally, if the Minister helps to secure a fairer central settlement and fairer funding for police authorities next year, I hope that instead of trying to cap local police authorities, she will, in the spirit of localism, allow them to decide their priorities and the way in which they set the local police precept in the interests of their areas. I have no doubt that after the huge increases of recent years, many police authorities will want to keep their police precept rises in low single digits, but some may not. Some may wish to make higher increases to fund additional police officers, and that should be their right and choice.

A year or so ago, after the Government had made some progress on education, especially on funding, their policies suffered a fall in credibility. There was growing public discontent because of a funding problem that hit many schools throughout England, not least in the south-west. The Government's reputation for delivering better education suffered a hard knock, and I hope that the Minister accepts that after a couple of years of progress, the Government face the self-same risk in policing and crime. Police chiefs and police authorities have warned them of the problems that they face next year. They will pay the political price in the next general election if they fail to deal with the issue in time.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair) : I intend to begin the summing-up speeches at 3 o'clock. Eight hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak, and I have done a quick sum showing that they have about four minutes each. If hon. Members keep to that, everyone will have a chance to speak.

2.26 pm

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing it. I shall try to be brief, although I do not know whether four minutes is realistic.

I shall limit my comments to the situation facing the three main police forces in the north-east of England. I acknowledge that the wider debate about the settlement for 2005–06 comes in the context of very good settlements in recent years. A record number of police officers has meant more than 700 additional officers in the Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland police force areas and a continuing fall in crime. That is all the more impressive when one considers that they are additional officers, because throughout the period people have left the force because of retirement, ill health or family reasons or to do other jobs.
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In the Northumbria police area alone, funding has risen from £126 per head of population in 1997–98 to more than £166 per head last year. That has meant more police officers in every command unit and in every constituency. I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil that that makes it more, not less, important, to sustain progress and ensure that the necessary resources are available.

The Minister will have closely studied the case being made by police authorities and chief police officers who have been lobbying Members of Parliament and the Government. That is their job and they have a right to do it, but just as police authorities and chief police officers are doing their job, I would expect the Minister to do hers, which is to ensure that additional resources are available and that they turn into officers on the streets. She must ensure, too, that civilian support staff are available to allow officers to do their job. Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that the taxpayer gets a fair deal for the resources being expended. It is hard to believe that future savings are not possible in the north-east, which has about £0.5 billion in police funding every year.

I shall say one or two things about those savings and changes in the Northumbria police area to illustrate my point. With Government help, Northumbria police has moved to civilianise many posts, which has meant more police officers on the beat; it has also reduced the number of police command units to six, which means that chief officers in those areas can use officers under their command more efficiently and effectively. In that regard, I mention the excellent work of Chief Superintendent Jim Peacock of north Tyneside command unit. He is busy establishing community teams of officers, which will bring them nearer to the community, and allow the better use of resources. We need to avoid undermining those efforts with cuts to civilian staff, which could reverse the trend of constables leaving their offices and going out on to the streets.

The community teams are to be strengthened by community support officers. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity, in the light of comments made in previous debates—not yet in this debate, I am pleased to say—to pay tribute to community support officers and emphasise the key role that they can play. They provide a uniformed presence on the streets where people want to see it. They also tackle antisocial behaviour. Whatever disputes we may have about crime statistics, antisocial behaviour is the reality for many people in our local communities. It seems that that is what community support officers are there to tackle.

In the light of the comments made by the hon. Member for Yeovil, if the price of getting rid of ring-fencing is that chief police officers reduce the number of community support officers, I would not favour going down that route. Even at this late stage, as my hon. Friend the Minister deliberates on such matters, I lobby her again for more community support officers for Northumbria police. I hope that they will come.

I encourage the Government to begin, or to continue, to think innovatively about future police funding—perhaps not for 2005–06, but beyond. My constituency has what is known as an evening economy, which is a mixed blessing for a seaside town such as Whitley Bay. The downside is alcohol-fuelled disorder, which requires an enhanced police presence. Is it unreasonable
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to ask businesses that profit from such alcohol sales to contribute towards alleviating the effects? I welcome the press reports today that suggest that the Government are considering such an idea and hope that the Minister will keep an open mind. Although a voluntary scheme may prove the best step initially, it may require legislation. I hope that she will continue to consider that. If football clubs are asked to contribute towards policing costs, it is not unreasonable to ask nightclubs and club owners to make a contribution.

When it comes to the balance between council tax, the precept and central funding, I, like others, have received letters about high council tax. I cannot recall a single letter about the high level of police precept or the increase in police precept, because people see that turning into police officers on the streets, which they want. When the Government consider what powers may be brought to bear on that precept, I ask that they first look carefully at what local authorities are doing. It is the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister that brings those powers to bear.

When a local authority, such as North Tyneside, has a high council tax but is closing centres such as the Linskill centre, we should look at the local authority rather than concerning ourselves too much with the police precept. That is particularly the case in my local area. If the police are recruited locally and are accountable locally, there should be an element of local funding.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that one option not mentioned so far, which is the restructuring of police authorities, could be dangerous if it makes the relationship between local funding and local policing even more indistinct ?

Mr. Campbell : Yes, I do. I am not sure that it is wrong to consider the issue and to look continually at whether there is a better way to deliver services, but the trend in public services is that people are looking for them to be delivered locally. They are concerned, first, that they should be delivered, but they also want them delivered locally. We should think carefully before going down the route that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) warns us against, not least because local authority changes in the past have often come back to bite us.

I re-emphasise the point made by the hon. Member for Yeovil about police pensions. Clearly, they have a distorting effect on the police budget and will continue to do so if, as the Durham constabulary area advises, there is a 12 per cent. increase in the need to draw down from that pension in the next year alone. When will the Government say what they intend to do about that? Are they looking at a national form of funding?

I hope that the Minister will reassure me that there will be as fully funded a settlement as possible in 2005–06, that she will listen to lobbying and that she will appreciate that my comments come from someone who acknowledges the Government's good record so far.

2.34 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing this important debate, which enables us to question the Minister on the police funding settlement,
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as it affects our police authorities. I shall try to keep my speech narrow and examine what is happening in Norfolk. I understand that the provisional funding settlement has been deferred until late November or even mid-December. Can the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety give me some idea of when the provisional settlement will be announced?

Norfolk is not necessarily the centre of organised crime in the United Kingdom, or at least not until we have a large casino in Great Yarmouth. We have specific problems relating to the geographical extent of the area and its rural sparsity. We have crime that involves drugs and violence, and robberies in rural areas. People fear crime very much because of the sparsity of the population and the limited number of police. I am the first to acknowledge that Norfolk police, with support from the Home Office, have made a great effort over the past few years to concentrate on smashing criminal gangs, increasing the number of police and dealing with the fear of crime.

Norfolk is trialling two good initiatives, which are the use of mobile police stations and post offices, but there are still major funding problems that go back several years: first, the whole business of police communications and, secondly, the continuing dispute between the Home Office and the police authority about Norfolk police having a dedicated police helicopter. Given the size of Norfolk, the extent of the coastline and the fact that some points are vulnerable to terrorist attack, the Home Office must reconsider such matters. As the hon. Member for Yeovil emphasised, many grants are ring-fenced in police authorities and money is increasingly absorbed by nationally applied legal and efficiency targets.

The hon. Gentleman also said that it is acknowledged by everyone that, across the board, most police authorities need about a 5.5 per cent. increase just to stand still. They are between a rock and a hard place. The assessment carried out by Norfolk is that, if we are lucky, the increase will be between 3 and 4 per cent., which means that we will be out by about 1 per cent. As he pointed out, the options are limited. One example is efficiency savings, which, as other hon. Members have said, can be made largely in terms of manpower. Indeed, 85 per cent. of most police funding in police authorities goes on that. There is a threat to get rid of civilian staff, which all chief constables would be reluctant to do, with the absurd possibility that uniformed staff would have to go back into head office. That would undercut all the increases in uniformed policing. Another option is to raise the police precept.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that the logical conclusion of his argument is that, if police officers have to go back to civilian tasks, ultimately the Home Office grant will fall as the number of policemen falls?

Mr. Simpson : Yes, we are in a bad Catch-22 position. The alternative is that the police precept might have to be raised. The experience of people in Norfolk is unlike   that of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), as they knew only too well what part of the council tax was being affected by the rise in the police
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precept. There is no doubt that the Government are also determined to cap those areas that are thinking of raising the local tax.

I have a simple question for the Minister: if we are between a rock and a hard place, what are we going to do about it? The problem is not one for the police to solve and it is not particularly one for local councils. It is a problem that the Home Office has given us and we want an answer.

I have a final important point to make about Norfolk. Several grants are specifically ring-fenced and tied to the Home Office, and they can be applied to areas such as Norfolk and others. I refer, for example, to the crime fighting fund and to the rural policing fund, which is worth about £2 million per annum to Norfolk. The future of the RPF is still in doubt, so I would be grateful if the Minister said whether Norfolk is to continue to receive that important allocation. If not, Norfolk's problem is even greater.

2.40 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in the debate, and I agree with many of the   wider points that the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) made about the challenge and costs of new technology and DNA testing, and about the real problem of pensions.

I want to be more specific: I will talk about the Nottinghamshire police because, as the Minister knows, resourcing Nottingham's police has been very controversial in the area. The Minister also well knows that murder and serious and organised crime, often drug-related, have been a big issue. The cold facts are that the number of offences per officer and per head of population appears to be the highest in the country, which has led to some disillusionment. Just a few days ago, the shadow Home Secretary compared Nottingham to Chicago in prohibition days. Gedling Conservatives are putting out a leaflet that says:

I am not ashamed of where I live; I am proud of the honest, decent Nottingham people, and I am backing their effort. My good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) are also backing them in putting in place community safety initiatives to build partnerships so that our children are safe on the streets.

People who make such claims are ignorant of the facts. Again, I quote the Gedling Conservatives, who say that the chief constable is

and that the police and politicians

The facts are rather different, although there is no doubt that Nottinghamshire police have underperformed.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I certainly do not want to discourage the hon. Gentleman from quoting the excellent literature put out by the hard-working prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate in Gedling, but surely he is shooting himself
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in the foot. He reads out literature that says that the Nottinghamshire police force is underperforming and then reveals that statistics show that Nottingham's force is indeed one of the least well performing in the country.

Paddy Tipping : I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has endorsed Gedling Conservatives' comments that they are ashamed of where they live. Given that he used to represent the area, that is quite disgraceful.

The performance of Nottinghamshire police is improving under the chief constable. In the past six months, crime has come down by 13.4 per cent. In particular, burglary and vehicle crime are down, and the number of offences in the past six months is down by 10,803 compared with the previous six months. That is the kind of performance that I applaud and I stick up for. I also stick up for the fact that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the police standards unit have been working closely with Nottinghamshire police to achieve those results. That police authority is going forward; it should not be put down.

Of course, we need more resources. Only last Thursday, my hon. Friends the Members for Gedling and for Nottingham, East met the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety yet again to argue for extra resources for Nottinghamshire police. Again, I quote the excellent literature that we have talked about, which makes this accusation:

The number of police in Nottinghamshire is at a record level. In the past three years, an extra 303 officers have been recruited, backed by 71 new community support officers. In private—he cannot speak publicly in Parliament—my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling has been assiduous and robust on the issue. I must say that my view differs slightly from his in that he has campaigned vigorously for extra police for Nottinghamshire, and I back him on that, while I want improved performance, too. We are beginning to see the results of improved performance.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety will reflect on her visit to Nottingham only last Thursday and consider ways to reward Nottinghamshire police. I hope that she has listened carefully to the pleas that we have made privately about the need to tackle serious and organised crime in the county. In particular, there will be an opportunity fairly soon to make decisions and announcements on police community support officers.

People in Gedling, Nottingham and Hucknall—across Nottinghamshire—want a greater police presence on our streets. I applaud yesterday's statement and look forward to seeing more police officers and more community support officers in Nottingham so that we can all be jointly proud of Nottingham and of Nottinghamshire.

Several hon. Members rose—

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. If all those hon. Members who want to speak are to be able to do so, speeches will have to be kept to three minutes. I would very much appreciate hon. Members' assistance in that.
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2.46 pm

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate. There is no doubt that shortfalls in police authority funding are a problem throughout the country. Nowhere is their effect more pronounced, proportionally, however, than in the Bedfordshire police authority.

Let me say straight away that the force itself is not to blame. Early-day motion 1830 makes it clear that the force, although historically underfunded by central Government, has nevertheless

However, even with the expected increases in council tax and central Government funding, and despite raiding its modest £1 million reserves, which exist only because of the force's effective governance, Bedfordshire police remains set to suffer a £2.2 million shortfall—the equivalent of losing 75 constables.

That shortfall cannot be plugged indefinitely by using council tax to fund essential services, and nor can we reasonably expect the force to make further cuts when it is already operating at the top end of the range of efficiency targets set out by the Government. The only option is likely to be a cut in personnel. Although I accept that efficiency is a virtue and that more should be done with less, once a force is efficient, as the Government recognise the Bedfordshire police force to be, any new demands are likely to require extra resources.

As we know, Bedfordshire police authority has made the efficiency savings demanded by the Treasury, with 83 per cent. of its budget going directly on staffing costs. Any further reduction in the back-room staff essential to keep the force operational is likely to mean that police officers will have to be taken off the beat to fulfil those functions. There is little room to cut already minimal administrative costs when Bedfordshire is feeling the funding shortfall ever more intensely because of pressure from the Metropolitan police, the pension time bomb, the requirement for the normal maintenance of expenditure, and the need to update technology and equipment.

A further squeeze is likely to come from the possible imposition by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister of a low cap on council tax. The proportion of Bedfordshire police authority budget met from council tax has risen from 14.5 per cent. in 1995–96 to 25.5 per cent. in 2004–05. Although local taxes from a historically underfunded county should not compensate for the lack of funding for essential services that are imposed by, and are the responsibility of, central Government, the removal of the option to plug the central Government funding shortfall has created another hole in the police budget.

The third squeeze on Bedfordshire's police budget comes from the Home Office, which, quite understandably, is imposing demands to put crime prevention at the top of the agenda. However, the Home Office's grand rhetoric and initiatives are not being matched by funding. Similarly, the ring-fencing of available funding, such as for CSOs and so on, is
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limiting the county's flexibility to decide how best to spend money, even though those concerned are in the best position to be able to do so. I believe that Bedfordshire police has more than fulfilled the Government's demands of it. If the county's policing is, at the very least, to stand still, let alone improve, the Government must put their money where their rhetoric is.

2.50 pm

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I shall spend one moment emphasising the importance of diversity in the police force. I do so in the light of the sneering response that I received from the—somewhat illiberal—hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) when I invited him, in what I thought was a friendly way, not to use sexist language in talking about the composition of the police force. I point out how much his attitude contrasts with that displayed yesterday, publicly and properly, by the Home Secretary, who announced a range of policies intended to encourage diversity in the police force. The Home Secretary made it clear that, unlike the hon. Member for Yeovil, he understands that the police force has lagged behind and needs policies to catch up in its diversity targets.

Women in Redcar, as everywhere else, frequently need the assistance of the police, particularly in response to sexual offences, of which there are a large number and for which the conviction rate is 7.2 per cent. Women find it infinitely easier to talk about such matters with women police officers. Domestic violence is also still an epidemic in this country, producing one phone call every minute to a police force somewhere, every day of every year. Yet the conviction rate is still lower than that for sexual offences. Similarly, women find it easier to talk to women police officers about domestic violence. Truly, in many situations, where women may be being oppressed by antisocial behaviour or by their own delinquent children, they find it easier to talk to women police officers about their needs. It is therefore not political correctness for the Home Office to say in its latest pronouncements that diversity in the police force is key.

Mr. Laws : Will the hon. and learned Lady give way?

Vera Baird : No, not now. It is a great shame that the sexist language that the hon. Gentleman deployed shows that he has not understood—[Interruption.] I am afraid that he is making his lack of understanding even clearer as I speak. He has not understood the importance of language in trying to encourage people who are not of the usual kind into a new field of operation.

Before I move on to Cleveland police, which is more important than the hon. Gentleman's inability to understand the modern world, I should like to give him an example from my past. As a barrister, I used to receive letters from the Court of Appeal—happily they no longer come—that said that counsel at the appeal must ensure that "he" tells "his" client that "his" responsibility is to do such-and-such and that "he" must always encourage such-and-such. The consequence of an address of that kind and the use of words such as "manning" is to make it perfectly clear that women are not the norm in a field of activity, but are rather unusual, and to make them feel somewhat peculiar to have
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ventured into it. Such language is the utter opposite of encouraging. Indeed, talking to a woman about increasing "manning" in the police force is about the same as talking to a black person about increasing the number of white people in the police force.

I hope that the hon. Member for Yeovil will start to understand the significance of sexist language—although I doubt he will—and I compliment the Home Secretary, who does understand it. The proposals to recruit more diversely, to train in a less residential way, which is obviously difficult for women to follow through on, and to ensure that duties and working hours are more family friendly are long overdue and hugely welcome. Police community support officer posts have proved a ripe source of recruitment from women and black and minority ethnic people. That development has helped with antisocial behaviour and other community problems and with diversity.

I want to sketch in a tiny amount of background on Cleveland—the police service that serves Redcar. There are two points that I want my hon. Friend the Minister to keep in mind. Cleveland police force found a £7.3 million black hole in its finances earlier this year. Imagine the impact of that discovery on the public, coming as it did in the immediate aftermath of a campaign—conducted, I am sure, in good faith by the chief constable—asking for an increase of 29 per cent. in the precept, in order, inter alia, to give every ward a police constable. That campaign was conducted on a roadshow basis but, far from being able to achieve what had been planned, the police needed to put the moneys into the black hole to try to bolster the finances.

A new chief constable was then appointed—Mr. Price, who is rightly not being blamed. It is clear that the old Cleveland police authority had not kept itself as well informed as it might have done. Of course, the National Audit Office was involved, and so was Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. No one was misappropriating funds, but the National Audit Office said that there had been a culture of unbridled growth in Cleveland police, with too little regard for financial management. That had not been challenged by the police authority. Part of what went wrong was insufficient attention to the need to keep balances and reserves high. It was clear by the beginning of this year that Cleveland police reserves were very small indeed.

The Audit Commission reports that the chief constable, the new police authority and the management are working well together. Their next budget and their next financial year, will remain extremely difficult, however, for two reasons. First, Cleveland police force is 30 years old this year, which means that it has a very large number of officers who are going to retire. As I understand it, the availability of pension funding for them must be calculated on the basis that 50 per cent. of them will retire with only 30 days' notice. Consequently, it is important that balances are kept in hand for that. It is probably right to say that pensions will make a higher-than-ordinary impact on policing in Cleveland in the next year or so.

Secondly, the National Audit Office severely criticised the running down of balances by the previous administration in Cleveland police force. Very properly, the current chief constable has spent a good deal of the
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last finance to be received, both from precept and from grant, on replenishing those balances. However, they are still extremely small.

Because significant balances are not available, it will be very difficult, if there is a shortfall in pension provision or if the expected resignations occur, to meet any shortfall out of balances. It will also be difficult for the current chief constable, whose police force has recently been criticised extraordinarily strongly for the running down of balances, to take more out of them in the teeth of that criticism to fund any shortfall—

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. The hon. and learned Lady has had plenty of time. I want to call one more hon. Member for the last minute.

2.59 pm

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): Thank you, Miss Begg; I am not sure what I can say in a minute, but I want to put on the record some issues relating to Lincolnshire, which was the only police authority in England and Wales in 2003–04 to have its funding per head reduced. I want an assurance from the Minister this afternoon that that trend will not continue in the forthcoming financial settlement.

Lincolnshire police authority faces an extra £6.9   million in costs in the financial year 2005–06, £1.8   million of which is specifically for the increased burden of police pensions. Will the Minister and the Home Office consider making a special one-off payment to offset this year's pensions bulge for Lincolnshire police authority?

Early indications are that the Government will provide only a 3 per cent. increase in grant, which leaves Lincolnshire to find £3.9 million from council tax. That shortfall will lead to an increase of up to 20 per cent. in the precept on local people in Lincolnshire, which is totally unacceptable. People realise that they must make a contribution, but it should be a fair one. There is a massive disparity of more than 50 per cent. between the allocation of funding per head in Lincolnshire, which was £102.31 in the 2003–04 financial year, and that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), which is £166 per head. That is completely unacceptable. In this day and age, people in rural areas suffer many of the same problems of drugs and other criminal activity as those in urban areas.

I urge the Minister to ensure that Lincolnshire receives a fair share of police funding. If the police authority received funding at the national average, never mind at the level suggested by the hon. Member for Tynemouth, there would be up to £15 million more to spend, which would enable it to provide a full and proper service to the people of Lincolnshire.

3.1 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): This has been an extraordinarily useful and timely debate. It is a great shame that not all Members have had the opportunity to contribute to it, but I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on introducing it. I could, if I were so minded, come in behind him on matters that pertain to Avon and Somerset, as he is my parliamentary neighbour and I
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have worked very closely with him over the years in trying to ensure that proper resources are allocated to the Avon and Somerset constabulary.

The paradox is that we are finally having some success. East Somerset is getting a few extra officers on the beat as well as community support officers, which we welcome. Indeed, I will see newly appointed officers this Friday and will welcome them to the area. That has been a long time coming. We were without the resources for many years under the previous Government, and have spent many years under this one without them. What we are trying to say today is that we do not want to turn the clock back again as a result of this year's settlement. If we do not obtain the resources, we will simply not be able to concentrate on areas in which the Government and all Members, whatever their political hue, want action to be taken.

We want greater visibility in rural areas of our constituencies and a greater police presence in the neighbourhoods of our cities. We want effective work to be done on prolific offenders, which Avon and Somerset has been particularly good at, but it is an expensive option that needs resources to make it work. We want better drug interdiction, and burglaries and car crime to continue to be driven down. We want the work on domestic violence to be enhanced. Indeed, we debated that in our consideration of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. We particularly want an effective response to gang warfare, which is all too prevalent in some of our cities—Bristol is no exception.

Mr. Roger Williams : My hon. Friend may remember that the rural policing grant was omitted from the police settlement when that was first announced last year, and reinstated only after lobbying. Does he agree that the Minister could perform a great service today if she confirmed that the rural policing grant will be included in the police settlement?

Mr. Heath : The Minister certainly could do that. She may have made that commitment when we debated the matter recently in response to a debate on West Mercia police, but I will ask her to repeat it today for the benefit of Members who are present.

In recent years, we have seen an increase in police numbers, which is welcome. Less welcome is the fact that it has been funded largely by the council tax payer. We welcome the fact that the Government have allowed that expansion, but we are concerned that they should take credit for it as though the money came from Government resources. In reality, much of the increase has been paid for by local tax payers through the council tax.

For all the reasons that I have given, we want to see more activity, particularly in the more obscure areas covered in the excellent White Paper published yesterday. I give credit to the Government for that—it contains much that we support—but we want the resources to make it happen. Investment is needed now if we are to release officers on to the street and away from their bureaucratic burdens. That cannot be done without cost; there is a front-loading cost to be met if we are to provide the technology that enables the police to pursue their activities on the street, which is where we want them to be.
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Many police authority areas have unavoidable commitments, and pensions are a big component of that. We have debated the difficulties of pensions many times. Indeed, I have often repeated the assurance that I was given by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) in 1996 that it would all be dealt with—but it was not dealt with then, nor since. The Government are at last bringing forward proposals, but we remain to be persuaded that the funds are available to resource those proposals without affecting direct policing.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): Surrey has the highest precept; Surrey people pay 43 per cent. for police funding despite savings of £15.9 million, and they are now at risk of paying more than 50 per cent. Does my hon. Friend agree that one then has to decide who comes first in policing matters—the Home Secretary or the local people, who are paying so much directly?

Mr. Heath : My hon. Friend is right. The Surrey police authority was explicit in its advice to its members. It said:

The chief constable of Hampshire constabulary, Paul Kernaghan, said:

Norfolk constabulary made exactly the same point:

Devon and Cornwall succinctly said that the lack of resources affects performance.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, according to the police authority, the gap is 6.9 per cent. in Hertfordshire? Does he share my worry that many home county authorities have a retention problem because London is able to pay £4,000 more per officer?

Mr. Heath : I certainly understand that, but I understand also that the lack of area cost adjustment payments means that many peripheral forces are disadvantaged; they are paying the same scale rates as many of the home county forces, but without the resources to support those payments.

We do not have enough time to do justice to the subject. I am aware of the many pressures on the Home Office budget this year. The burgeoning prison population is a huge drain, as are the pressures caused by asylum and immigration. The need to invest in new technologies and the Government's scheme for identity cards, if it goes ahead, will also have a huge effect on finances. We have yet to discover the costs of the serious and organised crime agency, a measure that I entirely support, but I want to know from where the funding will come.

What worries many of us is not that chief constables and police authorities are engaged in some perverse shroud waving simply for effect—they provide the
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front-line services on which we depend—but that they are taking a candid look at what is needed for next year. They realise that something approaching 3 per cent. will not be adequate, as it will not meet their needs. Although it may not result in fewer police officers, they say that it will certainly result in cuts to front-line services because civilianisation will be put into reverse and police officers will be put back into the police stations to do the backroom jobs. Chief constables and the police authorities are expressing a real concern.

I know from experience in my area that basic command unit commanders are being asked to bring forward budgets for consideration that show real-term cuts. That is what the Government's present spending figures imply. Those who are most committed to the objective of reducing crime, which we share with the Government, will be the hardest hit if the budgets go ahead.

The Home Office needed this debate and it needs more such debates, because it has a battle to win with the Treasury to ensure that the police service gets the funds needed to do the job. I regard the deferral of the announcement as a good sign that perhaps matters are being reconsidered. I welcome what the Home Secretary said yesterday. He pulled half a rabbit out of a hat—if that is not a rather macabre vision—in making it clear that some rethinking is going on.

The Minister needs to confirm that the settlement will be above 3 per cent. and to tell us whether the floors and ceilings will be retained, whether there is any intention to cap police authorities—that would be wholly counter-productive in the coming year—and whether the rural policing fund, which we are told will have no inflation component, will persist beyond the coming year.

Most of all, the Minister needs to tell us whether the Government are really committed to what they say in "Building Communities, Beating Crime: A better police service for the 21st century", the new White Paper. It contains 10 commitments to the police service. Commitment 4 is that the police service should be confident that

That is the key to good policing and what many people up and down the country will expect from the Home Secretary and the Minister in years to come. However, it is currently under threat.

3.11 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate and on the way in which he presented his case. He made a point about increased crime throughout our country, a point to which I shall return. He also talked about the increased costs imposed on the police and he warned of present and future difficulties. Many of my hon. Friends and I have recognised the strength of his argument. It is clear that much Liberal thinking has now embraced the policies of my party as we go forward with developments in respect of the police. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said.
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A point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is equally important: all of us here today are seeking to strengthen the Minister's hand in her negotiations with the Treasury to ensure that the settlement is fair and acceptable. Although I have harsh things to say about the Government's performance in that regard, I hope that if she takes one thing away from the debate, it will be that in the three main political parties, there is a strong view that the police service and therefore our constituents could be short-changed by the settlement that we receive this year. We very much hope that she will be able to ensure that that does not happen.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for enabling me to get at least a toehold in this important debate. I want to speak on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Authority. I would like the Minister, in the luxury of the 10 minutes that she has available, to say something about the largest police authority in the country.

Mr. Mitchell : I am pleased to have given way to my hon. Friend, not least because hon. Members were deprived of hearing a speech from him in this important debate.

We heard a most interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell). He, too, urged the Minister to get a good settlement from the Treasury. I suspect that, with some of the coded words that he used, he was warning her of the importance of that. He suggested that not everyone believes that community support officers are the panacea that the Government think they are. Opposition Members do not oppose CSOs, but we think it a mistake to increase so substantially the funding for them and to increase the number of such officers without any proper independent and reliable evaluation. If we saw such an evaluation, we might have more sympathy with the Government's argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr.   Simpson), as ever, stood up for Norfolk and argued forcefully about the difficulties facing the county. We then heard the most remarkable speech of the day, from the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). I saw the phalanx of Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament here today and asked myself what they were doing. Nottinghamshire MPs have a reputation for rugged individuality. On the speech of the hon. Member for Sherwood, I will only suggest strongly that the Minister listens more carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and the hon. Members for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) and for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) about how she should deal with policing in Nottinghamshire. Secondly, what I take away from the hon. Gentleman's contribution—I shall be on the phone shortly after this debate—is the good news for the Gedling Conservatives. Clearly, Labour is in trouble in Gedling. There is no other conceivable reason why he could have made such a speech. I give way to him with the greatest of pleasure.

Paddy Tipping : I am sure that the Conservatives in Gedling will be interested that the hon. Gentleman endorses the comments that they are disgusted and
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ashamed of the area where they live. They will take it from him because they will remember him as a failed Member there.

Mr. Mitchell : I rest my case. It is clear that the Labour party is worried about what is happening in Gedling. I neither endorse nor repudiate what was said by the Gedling Conservatives. They are doing a first-class job in standing up for the people of my old constituency.

Reluctantly, I must move on. We heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) about the squeeze on his local police force. We then heard from the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), who was unduly hard on the hon. Member for Yeovil. I agree that diversity in the police is enormously important, and although I did not agree with everything that she said, she made a most powerful and eloquent argument about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) made his points forcefully for the Lincolnshire police force in a remarkable speech; he managed to get so much into such a short period.

I fear that I will run out of time quite soon but I want to make a number of key points, which I hope tie together some of my hon. Friends' comments. The question of how we pay for the police is at the heart of the debate. Under this Government, there has been a dramatic shift in funding responsibility to the council tax payer. The average precept increase is 20 per cent. in this financial year. The precept increase in North Yorkshire was more than 75 per cent., and it was more than 50 per cent. in Gloucestershire. Police expenditure financed through council tax has doubled in real terms between 1997 and 2004. Council tax now accounts for 20 per cent. of police force expenditure, compared with only 12 per cent. before. The police precept has increased by 87 per cent.

One of the points that our constituents notice is that if one assumes the cost of a police officer is about £50,000, that precept increase could have paid for more than 19,000 officers, instead of the 13,900 that we have received. The council tax precept has paid for increased police numbers, not the Government, and the public have been short-changed out of something like 5,000 police officers.

The police will suffer some serious effects. In the west midlands, which has a police force that serves some 2.5 million people and covers the three major centres of Birmingham—Britain's second city—Coventry and Wolverhampton, crime is at very high levels. The force is fully stretched. It has been seriously affected by the Government's meddling with the police grant funding formula. It lost out by £27 million in the funding settlement because the amount to which it was entitled, according to the Government's funding formula, was capped by the introduction of floors and ceilings. The force lost out again in the 2004–05 funding settlement by a further £27 million because of the flat increase of 3.25 per cent.

Those are serious factors that affect the west midlands. I know that the Minister has some sympathy with the case that we have put in the west midlands, but it would be remiss of me not to stand up for the force in the area that I represent. There is no doubt that recorded crime has risen hugely under this Government. It has
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risen by some 16 per cent. It is up from 5 million crimes to nearly 5.9 million crimes. Violence against the person is up 90 per cent. Sexual offences are up 44 per cent. Violent crime under this Government has risen by 83 per cent. Robbery is up 51 per cent. Criminal damage is up 37 per cent.

The ultimate condemnation of the Government's performance lies in how detection rates have fallen. Detection rates for violence against the person have fallen from 79 per cent. to 50 per cent., for sex crimes from 77 per cent. to below 40 per cent., for robbery from 27 per cent. to 18 per cent., and for criminal damage from 19 per cent. to 13 per cent.

The Minister appears to be in a state of denial about crime. She mouths to our constituents that crime has fallen under this Government, but the opposite is the truth. She must realise that part of coming to terms with reality is to accept, rather like a drunk, that the first phase of recovery is to acknowledge what the problem actually is. I hope she will say today that she is determined to persuade the Treasury to implement the Conservative party's proposals for an extra 40,000 police, and that she will set about a return to the detection rates that her Government inherited in 1997. She must stop the endless passion of the Home Office for ring-fencing funding and interfering. I hope that in her debates and arguments with the Treasury she will try to ensure that some of the enormous extra tax that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has taken is directed to helping our communities by increasing the money that central Government provide to police forces.

3.21 pm

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing the debate. It is clear from the number of hon. Members present that we are all concerned about policing and tackling crime and antisocial behaviour in our constituencies. It is also a testament to the lobbying powers of the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers, which have made a good case to Members of Parliament.

This has been a very cheerful debate; until the contribution of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), I was going to say that it had been good-tempered, too. If I were still a Minister at the Department of Health, I might be inclined to give him a bit of advice about his blood pressure.

Many contributions were the result of assumptions about the level of police grant and of precept and uncertainty about how far police forces will be able to drive through their cashable and non-cashable efficiency gains. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) made a very good contribution about efficiency.

There are several imponderables in our current position on police funding, some of which will become clearer in the next few weeks. Hon. Members press me about funding, and I try to keep as a straight a face as I can—it is a little like playing poker. Before the formal settlement is made, I cannot talk about the general level of police grant or the specific grants other than to reaffirm what I have already said about the rural policing grant, which is that it is £30 million and is
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distributed to about 31 forces. It will still be around for the next year, because we recognise that it has been a great help to many of the forces mentioned by hon. Members.

Mr. Prisk : Will the Minister give way?

Ms Blears : I will not, as I have only seven minutes to try to cover all the points that hon. Members raised.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Yeovil for acknowledging the improvements that have been made. Many hon. Members also acknowledged that an increased numbers of police officers and community support officers have been out in the community in the last couple of years giving the public the reassurance that they want from the police service, and I am delighted about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth mentioned the pilot study on the civilianisation of the custody function in his constituency. It is one of the most ambitious work force modernisation pilots, which has released 93 police officers for front-line activity, and it is a good example of efficiency.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, asked about the allocation of community support officers, and I am considering my submission on that at present. The fund available is oversubscribed by almost 100 per cent. We have had bids for £100 million, but we have £50   million, so I shall need to make the allocations carefully.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) acknowledged the progress made. He raised the issue of funding for a helicopter; helicopters have to be funded partly by a contribution from the force, and Norfolk has not so far been prepared to make a contribution, but the door is still open if it wants to discuss the matter further.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), in an excellent and passionate contribution, reminded me of my visit last Thursday and Friday to Nottingham, where I met police officers, local leaders and residents. I saw the video ID suite, which saves a fortune, and met the robbery team, who are out on the streets driving down robbery.

Despite his position as a Government Whip and his inability to make contributions in the opening part of parliamentary proceedings, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has been a champion for his local area. He has lobbied me for more police officers, community support officers and funding. I can barely walk through Parliament without him constantly stopping me on behalf of his community. I am delighted that the performance of Nottinghamshire police is improving, and we must ensure that investment is used to its best effect. I have received a further report in the past week from Nottingham about the problems of serious and organised crime, and I will deal with it carefully.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) made an important contribution about diversity. Recruiting more women is important in implementing some of the findings of the White Paper,
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but we also need a different relationship, culture and set of skills in the police force. We need to recruit more from black and minority ethnic communities and more disabled people. We want the police force to look like the communities it serves.

My hon. and learned Friend spoke about the £7.5   million gap in the budget of Cleveland police. There have clearly been difficulties with financial management in the force. I shall ask officials to engage with the force to see what can be done, but I cannot offer specific extra funding today. I am conscious of the difficulties in that community.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) welcomed much of the ongoing improvement. He mentioned technology. With video ID suites, automatic number plate recognition and fingerprinting improvements, we are driving through efficiencies so that we can continue to provide good police services with the available resources.

Several hon. Members mentioned that local precepts have risen to fund extra officers. In fact, 9,650 of the extra 13,000 police officers have been funded through the crime fighting fund rather than through local precepts. I entirely acknowledge that local people have made a big contribution to providing extra officers, but a huge amount has come from central Government funding—we still provide nearly 80 per cent. of police funding. Although local percentage increases have risen, there has been a massive increase in Government funds.

The allegations from the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and his intemperate expression of the current situation contrast with what everyone else has said. People have spoken about improvements on the ground, more police officers, performance increases, people feeling safer in their communities and crime falling by 30 per cent. Let us not judge him on what he says, but on the record of his party. There were 11,000 fewer police officers under the Conservatives, and crime doubled. It is easy for him to talk intemperately about these issues, but I ask him to reflect on his party's record, and I ask other hon. Members to judge the Conservatives on what they did, not what they say.

I hope to provide a good police grant settlement. The Home Secretary said yesterday that we are doing everything possible to generate a realistic police grant, as we did last year. We took £140 million from the rest of the Home Office and put it into police grant because we recognised how important tackling crime and antisocial behaviour is for constituents in their communities.

Finally, I shall turn to pensions. There is a pensions increase for most authorities this year. Some authorities have managed to put away £161 million in reserves. Authorities knew that they would have a spike in pensions on retirements, but I appreciate that it is a difficult situation. Rather than delaying, the Government have sought to change the pension scheme from next year, to iron out volatility and avoid peaks and troughs. However, the combination of authorities' reserves, potential efficiencies, a reasonable police grant and a reasonable precept should enable us to carry on providing the excellent levels of policing and community safety on which the Government have a proud record.
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