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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): On policing in rural areas, is the Minister aware that in North Cotswolds, which covers an area of 300 square miles, there is only one patrol car on at night? When I have taken that up with the chief constable he says that there is not enough money in the formula properly to police rural areas. When the Minister is considering the formula, will she look carefully at the real costs of policing remote rural areas? Will she also consider providing more custody suites, because the police have to travel 30 miles to Stroud from parts of my constituency to place someone in custody, and that is an enormous waste of time for police and individuals? Will she consider those two aspects?

Ms Blears: Yes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that during the past four or five years there has been a massive increase in police investment in every force in the country, including his area, to enable them to provide services for their community. Clearly, the amount of policing in different parts of his constituency and in different parts of the force area is a matter for the chief constable, who must allocate the resources in accordance with the policing needs.

On custody—we have had this discussion before—it is a matter of getting the balance right: ensuring that we obtain economies of scale in a custody process versus having small custody areas. We are trying, particularly with our civilianisation programme, to ensure that custody services are run in the most cost-efficient way, to free up police officers for the front line, but also to free up some of those resources that are currently used for custody purposes for other important policing activities. These are very much operational matters, but I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman supports our move towards civilianisation and our modernisation of custody procedures. [Interruption.] At least, I hope he supports that kind of reconfiguration.
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Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab/Co-op): We in the west midlands were clearly delighted with the progress that you are making on the funding formula. We had an increase of £27 million, which was received with great appreciation by the West Midlands police authority, the area's parliamentary Labour group and the chief constable. May I put on the record our sincere thanks to you as the Minister and to our Government for acknowledging the shortfall in the formula, and urge you to continue this work on our behalf?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough not to be using the word "you". I have had nothing at all to do with these matters. But I am sure we are all pleased that those paeans of praise are on the record.

Ms Blears: None more so than me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was perhaps the comment that I was expecting the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) to make in his contribution. I have no doubt that he, as a west midlands Member, will welcome the record increase of 6.8 per cent. in general grant for the West Midlands police, and I look forward to hearing that.

Mr. Llwyd: On civilianisation and cutting down on paperwork, the Minister, like me, will know, as a frequent visitor to the Police Federation conferences, that one issue is the form filling. I appreciate that under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 some are absolutely necessary and have to be adhered to. What work is going on to reduce that huge work load? I am sure that some of the forms are unnecessary and can be done away with, and others could surely be civilianised utterly.

Ms Blears: We are making progress. More than 7,000 forms have now been disposed of. The hon. Gentleman is right that some of the form filling is about accountability, both under the law and to communities, but we need to bring it down to the absolute minimum. We have now instituted a gateway process whereby for a proposal to get through it has to be scrutinised and be seen to be effective and necessary, so that we weed out not just the forms, but some unnecessary policy items. We have an assistant chief constable who is now focused on this, visiting forces to go out with the officers on the front line to obtain those practical suggestions that often make the most difference.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): When I tabled a question to the Minister asking about those 7,700 forms, she responded that no information on what those forms were was being kept by her officials. Can she do a bit better than that? Could she write to me, or put a letter in the Library, explaining what categories these forms fall into, so that we can understand a bit more clearly how much progress the Government have made in this important task?

Ms Blears: I will do my best, but I do not propose to ask forces to fill in a form telling me what forms they have disposed of, as that might fall into the unnecessary
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bureaucracy category. I will certainly do my best to see whether we have any further information on this without putting an undue bureaucratic burden on the rest of the system.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I think that I heard the Minister say that there was a significant increase in capital grant amounting to 13 per cent. There is no mention of capital grant within the police grant report that we are debating today, so we are in the dark as to exactly what her intentions are. But the view of the Association of Police Authorities is that the figure for this year is £358 million, an increase of only £3 million over the £355 million last year, which is certainly nothing like 13 per cent., and in fact is less than 1 per cent.

Ms Blears: We are at one on the £358 million and I will look further into the percentage increase. Perhaps before the end of today's debate I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman that information. If not, I will certainly write to him.

Last year we had the flat rate increase and we have now moved towards the formula in a better way. There will be a funding floor of 3.75 per cent. to protect forces that would otherwise have fallen below that level, and that is substantially above police pay increases, which are about 3 per cent., and non-pay increases, which are about 2.6 per cent. We have also removed the funding ceiling—something that many people asked us to do—and that has been widely welcomed, and the increases for forces range from the 3.75 per cent. all the way up to the 6.8 per cent. for the West Midlands, and some in between, so it is a very good settlement.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the problems with smaller forces such as Gloucestershire is that the perceived efficiency savings impinge quite hard now? To be fair to the Gloucestershire force, it has made efficiency savings over the years, but it is beginning to come to the end of those. Will she assure me that there is realism in what efficiency savings are expected to be made?

Ms Blears: Yes, we are realistic, and police services have a good record on achieving efficiency savings. We think that what we have asked them to do is realistic. My hon. Friend makes the point about smaller forces, and that is why we have told them to work together. We now have regional groups considering efficiency, because economies of scale are often to be had by forces working together, not just with the police service but with their local authority colleagues, on call centres for example, squeezing more efficiency out of the system in that way.

Pensions have been a big issue this year. Many police authorities have said that there is a spike in the pensions costs because there is the 30-year retirement after the big recruitment campaign about 30 years ago. We were able to put an extra £20 million, a special uplift of 0.25 per cent., into the grant in order to take account of that. For next year we have proposed to change the pension system so that we will reduce the volatility that is out there, and the risk of that volatility will be held at the centre, in that there will be a separate pensions pot in
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which people will put their employee and employer contributions, and if that is not enough to meet the pensions requirement, the Government will top it up. That should even out the spikes that we have seen in recent years, which will be hugely welcomed by police authorities throughout the country. The pensions system is changing quite dramatically as well and will be less expensive in future and provide a better range of more modern and flexible benefits.

I have spoken about the formula review, on which we are now engaged. We also want to try to ensure that the formula better reflects the domains that are in our police performance assessment framework, and that work is ongoing. Again, that will make the funding system more transparent and more easily understood. We are also working with our local government colleagues to look at the possibility of three-year settlements, which again would give some stability and enable people to look ahead and be sure of the funding available.

We want to see 3 per cent. efficiency savings, half of which is to be cashable and half non-cashable, and all used to reinvest in services or, I hope, to keep the precept down as well to ensure that we have reasonable council tax increases of less than 5 per cent., as the Deputy Prime Minister has made clear. Last year, 11 police authorities achieved efficiency gains of 3 per cent. or more, so I think that is a realistic expectation. I know that it is tough, so we are supporting the police in achieving those gains. I am told that forces such as Thames Valley provide horses and mounted officers for a number of adjoining forces, which relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about small forces having to provide such things on their own. South Wales has reorganised its custody function to release its officers to the front line, and it has managed to get more efficiencies in that way.

We also need to keep pressing on sickness rates both in the police force, in terms of officers, and among police staff. The figures are still too varied. The best force is down at 6.1 days per officer per year lost through sickness, while the worst is still at 13.8 days. That is a big variation, and there is more to be done on that issue.

For the first time ever, we have the front-line policing measure, enabling us to see the amount of time that officers are spending on front-line duties. If we can get the figure up from the current 63 per cent. to about 72.5 per cent., we will be able to release the equivalent of thousands of officers back on to the front line to do policing in their communities. That is a very important issue for us.

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