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Mr. Heath: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I would give way to the hon. Gentleman, but other hon. Members want to speak and I am nearing the end of my remarks. I am sure that he will have plenty of opportunities to contribute again this afternoon.

I urge the Minister to take account of the need of urban constituencies in rural areas when the amount of funding is being calculated. I also hope that she will take into consideration those forces like my own that have brought in innovations. However, I remind the House that funding settlements are not the only important element, as another key consideration is the future capital investment in bricks and mortar.

3.52 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): I am delighted to contribute to this debate, not least because crime and antisocial behaviour are currently at the top of my constituents' priorities.

Next year's budget for Sussex police will be set next week, and it is likely that council taxes will have to rise by just under 5 per cent. That is within the Government guidelines, and I am told that the new budget will fund an extra officer in each of the county's 43 neighbourhood police teams. It should also enable Sussex police to recruit and train PCSOs, of whom we now have 200. That is more than any other county force.

It is also hoped that efficiency savings next year will amount to £6.9 million. If the Sussex force can pull that off, it will be pretty impressive. The intention is that the money will be ploughed back into front-line policing, so it is clear that the Sussex force is doing its best with the available resources.

Sussex has the fifth lowest council tax of all shire police authorities, but it is interesting that the net revenue spending on policing per 1,000 head of population is 3 per cent. below the shire average at
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£145,900. It is substantially below the average for all of England and Wales, which is nearly £183,000. There is some way to go in squeezing more funding from central Government.

Funding for the coming year is critically dependent on the level of the grant floor. We hear a lot about grant floors, and I suspect that we shall hear even more in the next debate. That is determined by the Government and cannot be forecast from one year to another with any certainty, because it is a purely political judgment. Hon. Members have already made the point about long-term planning for police budgets.

Sussex is on track to have made £28 million of efficiency savings since 1999, so it is not an inefficient police authority by any stretch of the imagination. However—my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made a similar point—the salaries of officers in Sussex account for nearly 80 per cent. of the entire budget, so the available headroom for making other major policing choices is very restricted.

On one level, I am pleased that police numbers overall are back to the sort of levels we had in 1997, although other problems exist. When I was out with the police in Eastbourne the other night, I was told that some 60 per cent. of officers deployed on any day are probationers. At some time in the future, that may be good news for the force, but it suggests that a raft of senior officers has chosen to leave policing, perhaps because of extra bureaucracy and red tape.

Police numbers in my constituency are well below the national average. If officers deployed at Gatwick are excluded, the ratio of population to police officers in Sussex is about 509 people to each police officer. Sussex would need to recruit more than 300 additional officers just to reach the shire average of 461. There is some way to go in obtaining a level of policing that is remotely applicable to the population of the county.

I am pleased to say that the force's overall crime detection rate has edged back up to more than 25 per cent., but that must be put in the context that it leaves 75 per cent. of crimes not detected. Such matters must be seen against an increase in recorded crime of 6.5 per cent. or 8,635 offences in 2004. The Minister may be able to say how that compares with similar counties, but it is interesting that most of the increase is in crimes such as common assault and criminal damage. I accept that some of it may result from the way in which we now record crime.

I said that I went out with my local police the other night, which I try to do from time to time because I find it instructive. It was particularly interesting because it was the Friday before the Second Reading vote on identity cards. To a man and woman, all the police officers I spoke to were in favour of identity cards to help them in their job. I was out with the police during Operation Merlin and they stopped more than 200 vehicles, partly because they were looking for drink drivers and partly for other reasons, including in particular a local phenomenon called boy racers. It was interesting to see how long it sometimes took to check people's identities, and some refused to give any clue as to who they were and where they came from. The basic mechanics of checking people's identities in day-to-day policing should be considerably enhanced by identity cards, despite the legitimate concerns about the way in which the Government have chosen to introduce them.
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I was struck, as I always am, by the dedication and professionalism of the officers I was with on that Friday night. They are lucky in my constituency to be led by Chief Inspector Peter Mills, who is a no-nonsense, experienced police officer and determined to adopt a zero tolerance approach to crime at all levels. As I have said, it was somewhat surprising that 60 per cent. or so of the officers were probationers, which seems to be the trend at the moment.

Another factor when we are looking at police numbers versus the challenges that they face—they certainly face challenges, even in places such as Eastbourne—is the extent to which their hands are tied behind their backs by red tape and form filling. As I understand it, the police have to take account of 58 separate performance criteria. Sir Ian Blair, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has said that the obsession with officer numbers and other targets is "a weight" holding down the police. Perhaps the most obvious example is the new requirement, which I believe comes in on 1 April, to record police stops as well as searches. The extent of form filling was graphically set out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet. We have made it clear that on the first day of a Conservative Government that form filling would be stopped.

There is a problem with the amount of time that police take up with the administrative side of their job. There are also new pressures on them all the time. Those include the relaxation of the laws on so-called soft drugs such as cannabis. There is also the massive problem, which has been so prominent recently, of 24-hour licensing. It is a matter of real concern in my constituency, particularly for people who live in the centre of Eastbourne, who already face major problems, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. It is also a problem for the police, who will have to live with the new rules. My police are certainly apprehensive about how they will manage.

There are other factors, too. The other day, the chairman of the police authority, Mark Dunn, wrote to the Home Secretary, expressing what he called his "grave concerns". He said:

He went on to make a point that I had not heard before in this debate, which is that he worries about recruiting police officers and the difficulty of attracting

He makes a very good point.

It seems to me that the choice is clear. At the moment we have a regime in which a burglar has a three in 100 chance of being caught, charged and convicted, and even if he goes to prison he may well benefit from the early release scheme and go on to commit yet more burglaries. The Liberal Democrats, of course, take the view that burglars should not go to prison anyway. We are offering a leader who, as Home Secretary, reduced crime by 18 per cent., and we are saying that we will have 900 extra police officers on the streets of Sussex.
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4.2 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Hitherto this has been an interesting debate. It is normally characterised as an annual dose of special pleading, but that is the nature of things. Somebody referred earlier to groundhog day, but this is the system that we operate—the annual special pleading system. Like many other hon. Members, I believe that there has to be a different way of allocating police funds. We urgently need a root-and-branch overhaul of the formula. The Government tell us that that is ongoing, but we have been told that for some considerable time, and I hope that, at some point, the Minister will tell us when it is likely to be completed. The debates will be characterised by this sort of horse-trading until we have an equitable distribution of funds.

I welcome what the Minister said about the possibility of a three-year funding arrangement, which would undoubtedly be good for forward planning. One of the problems at the moment is stop-go planning. Another problem, in Wales in particular, is the extra cost of policing rural areas. To their credit, the Government accepted the case made by many Members, including myself, for a rural policing fund. That was three years ago, and the money has been paid out at the exact same rate for three years, despite inflationary pressure.

Having accepted the argument, the Government seem to be back-pedalling on the rural policing fund this year. That is a cause for concern, because of increased fuel costs, high-mileage vehicles needing high maintenance, huge hikes in insurance costs since 9/11, and the need to tackle increasing property crime in hitherto fairly safe rural areas. The scourge of drug peddling is now as much an issue in rural areas as it is an inner-city phenomenon. That places further pressure on good rural policing.

Dare I say that if the Hunting Act 2004 is implemented, it will impose a further huge commitment on rural police forces? My understanding is that the Home Office has not included a budget head for the vast burden that may fall on rural police forces—in Welsh terms, all four forces. Do the Government recognise the burden that the Act will place on police forces? If so, why has this item been so studiously ignored?

The four Welsh police forces are performing well and stand comparison with the best in England and Scotland. North Wales police received a green grading, the highest available, from the Audit Commission for crime recording. They have reduced crime by 10 per cent., one of the best results in England and Wales. There were 4,600 fewer victims of crime in North Wales in 2004 than in the previous year. The overall detection rate was extremely good, among the best in England and Wales, at 41 per cent., apart from Dyfed-Powys, where it was even better. The western division—that is, Gwynedd and Ynys Môn—had, at 48 per cent., the highest detection rate of all the 255 police divisions of England and Wales. For burglaries of dwellings, all three divisions were in the top five. Robbery in North Wales was down by 28 per cent., and so on.

The police force is performing well in North Wales, Dyfed-Powys, Gwent and South Wales. The Minister may laugh and say, "So why are you whingeing?" I am whingeing because I want the police to continue doing    that good work. Despite budgetary pressure,
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Dyfed-Powys is opening up police points in shops, chemists and post offices, often helping to keep those post offices open, which the Government are not keen on. The force is doing an excellent job and adopting a creative approach.

On the overall funding of Welsh forces, they are all on the floor at 3.75 per cent., compared with English forces, including the Met, at 4.85 per cent. That is quite a difference. We know that police inflation remains between 5 and 6 per cent., of which pensions account for 1 to 2 per cent. Forces are therefore making cuts, mainly in capital investment projects initially. The North Wales police force has to make cuts of about £500,000 because of the settlement. Specifically, I am told, that means police stuck in the station far more often, as the force will not be able to invest in mobile technology such as hand-held devices. The cuts will also lead to what the force calls a tightening of the recruitment freeze. I assume that means a longer than expected period during which no new police officers will be recruited. That cannot continue ad infinitum, because of the working of the crime fighting fund. Clearly, there is a problem.

The force says that the review of the formula needs to be completed quickly, taking full account of sparsity issues. The sparsity grant has not kept pace with inflation and requires more research. The funding and tax base of forces must be protected if the drive for improving performance is to be sustained in North Wales.

The South Wales police tell me that their main concern is that the funding formula is based on population census figures, which works against all four forces. As the census figures show the Welsh population to be significantly reduced, that may have a major impact on the force's finances. It is having to cut capital projects because of the funding changes. As a result, developments at its headquarters at Bridgend are probably under threat. Bill Wilkinson, of South Yorkshire police, who is a member of the Home Office expenditure forecast working group, says that the cost and service development requirements need a 6 per cent. growth in budget.

Dyfed-Powys police also have cost pressures, with growth in pension costs of £1.8 million and pay inflation of £2.1 million, so costs will rise by about 7 per cent., and as we know, they have also had the 3.7 per cent. flooring. As I said earlier, the force is innovative. It does not waste any money. It is considering further developing Airwave, the communications centre, the rural post office scheme, to which I referred, criminal justice measures, the successful automatic number plate recognition system, about which the Minister will know, and police officer training at a cost of £500,000. All that is sensible expenditure. On the other side of the equation are pensions, £1.8 million; inflation in doctors' fees, £200,000; energy cost increases, £200,000; crime recording, £100,000; general pay price inflation, £2.1 million; and other costs, £500,000. The force is very concerned. Unlike some hon. Members who have spoken, I am not jumping for joy at the moment, because of those pressures. The force highlights the number of problems in the budget formula, and I have referred to the population falls and the use of out-of-date census figures, about which it is particularly concerned.
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Given the remarkable number of Home Office Bills in the Queen's Speech, there will undoubtedly be huge further pressures on police forces. If the Home Office continues to issue diktats from the centre for this, that and the next thing to be done, I hope that it realises that the additional responsibilities will have to be paid for. Without that, they will not become any kind of reality. The terrorism argument is another that one could consider. There are many pressures. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill will put great pressure on the average police force, despite the funding of the new Serious Organised Crime Agency—of that I am sure.

I conclude in the same way as the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) by asking a few questions to which I hope the Minister will be able to reply in due course; if not today, I would respectfully ask her to write to me in the course of time—not in a too lengthy course of time perhaps, but in the course of time none the less.

When will the review of the police grant formula be completed, and will the Minister confirm that the police sparsity grant has not kept pace with inflation over the past seven years? Has she used the 2001 census figures for the 2005–06 police grant calculation? What figures has the Home Office used to calculate the day visitor element of the 2005–06 police grant? Finally, what are the most recent figures available for measuring the number of day visitors to Wales for the purposes of the allocation of the police grant? I do not expect those questions to be answered today, but I would be greatly obliged if she would respond to each and every one of those points in due course.

This is not a very good settlement for any of the Welsh police forces. They had expected worse, but I am reminded of what my dentist says: when one deals with Government, they start by threatening to amputate both legs, and when one loses only one, one feels rather happier about it.

4.15 pm

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