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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Currently, I am spending time on the parliamentary police scheme and have been out on patrol with the Kettering police, who operate a shift system. Is the Minister aware that although it is true that police numbers, certainly in Northamptonshire, are at record levels, only one officer out of nine on a shift in Kettering was capable of driving a police car with the sirens and lights flashing? He was the only grade-one qualified police officer on that shift. Police numbers might be at record levels, but sadly, due to budget shortfalls, not all the officers are trained to the standards that the public would expect.

Paul Goggins: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for taking part in the parliamentary police scheme. Hon. Members of all parties engage with it, and that is a very effective way of showing support for the police service as well as of learning about some of the challenges that it faces.

Clearly, I cannot comment on the particular circumstances that the hon. Gentleman described. However, the important thing is that those who manage our front-line police services should be able to bring together an appropriate mix of qualifications, professional experience and so on, so that we get the best policing possible in our local communities.

In addition to increasing the numbers, we are actively reducing bureaucracy through a programme that we expect will yield the equivalent of an extra 12,000 police officers by 2008. Again, that will free up more police officers for the front line. Police officers are now supported by more than 6,300 community support officers, whose numbers are expected to increase by about 5,600 next year. That will take us to nearly 12,000—about half the total number of community support officers that we have pledged to deliver by 2008.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Minister has been generous in giving way.

Everyone welcomes the new community support officers, and I hope that that excellent news will mean enhanced policing in rural areas. Concern has been
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expressed, however, in the Thames Valley police, because although there is finance for community support officers for the next two years—they appear to be funded for that period—what will happen after that? Superintendents and senior police officers are concerned that at the end of the two years, they will have to make invidious decisions about whether to keep on the community support officers or get rid of regular, uniformed police constables. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the funding for community support officers will not be time limited and that it will carry on as part of the settlement, year on year?

Paul Goggins: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot predict in fine detail how community support officers will be funded in 2008–09, because those years are in a spending period for which we do not yet have the details. He will understand from the explanation that I offer now that funding police services is, in essence, a balance between central funding and local funding—through specific grants, general grants and so on.

As community support officers become firmly embedded in front-line policing, the funding of those officers will reflect that balance, as the hon. Gentleman and all of us would expect. How that balance will be achieved is a matter for further deliberation and no doubt further debate. However, beyond debate is the fact that community support officers, as the hon. Gentleman says, add enormously to the capacity of neighbourhood policing and to the reassurance of our constituents, and they will do so in even greater numbers in the years ahead.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Last week, I said to the Home Secretary—and I briefly say to the Minister—that one of our difficulties in Coventry and the west midlands is in being able to contact police or a senior police officer during the weekends, particularly in the summer when all sorts of problems go on in our neighbourhoods. Will the Minister say, or give an indication of, how many police community support officers will be introduced in, for example, Coventry and the west midlands as a whole?

Paul Goggins: I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise figure at this stage. However, his constituency and police area will benefit enormously from the kind of increase in community support officers that we are seeing. As I say, their number will double over the next period and will rise to 24,000 by 2008. My hon. Friend can rest assured that he will have a fair share of those community support officers, who will be part of the neighbourhood policing team for his constituency.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In Leicestershire, the population of almost 1 million people has benefited greatly from police investment over the past nine years or so. Of that, there is little doubt. Is the Minister aware, however, that the individual police precept in Leicestershire is becoming substantial? Is he happy that the way in which central support is calculated for police authorities is adequate, and should it not be rising at a greater level to reduce the impact of the precept, particularly on older people and those with lower means?
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Paul Goggins: There is a balance to be struck between central and local funding, but last year's settlement meant that no police authority had to go beyond a 5 per cent. increase in precept. On the details of today's settlement, I believe that authorities will not have to exceed 5 per cent. in the coming year, and the Government will take a dim view of any that has a mind to do otherwise.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD) rose—

Mr. Soames rose—

Paul Goggins: Members who attend debates in which I participate will know that I am always willing to give way. However, I have a responsibility, too, to make some progress. If hon. Members will acknowledge that, I shall happily give way.

Mr. Beith: I am grateful. While the Minister is dealing with police precepts, he must recognise that compulsory reorganisation, as announced by the Home Secretary today, could lead council tax payers in Northumberland to have their precept increased by as much as 30 per cent. because of the process of levelling with the other forces involved. Given that that force meets all the Government's criteria, can the Minister give some assurance that precept equalisation will not take place in the reorganisation of forces?

Paul Goggins: I shall come on to those issues. Funding of the restructuring announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary today will involve a number of angles. Central Government will invest, and I shall today outline £125 million of that over the next two years, an investment which will clearly be important. Secondly, police authorities have existing investment plans, which they will be able to reshape to reflect the new force structure.

Yes, some cost will fall on the local police authorities, but they will reap the benefit in efficiencies and savings. We estimate that we shall begin to see those benefits after three years, and they will play back into the funding of police authorities. Funding will be a mix of those three factors, but it is sustainable and should not bear down any more heavily than I have suggested on local council tax payers.

I shall take an intervention from the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), but will then make progress.

Mr. Soames: I am sincerely grateful to the Minister and promise not to intervene on him again. He is being extremely courteous.

I wish to make a particular point. Sussex police has already planned to deliver £6.8 million in efficiency savings, but the final settlement will require further savings of £1.9 million in order to constrain any precept increase to below 5 per cent. I know that the Minister understands that that will almost certainly mean a real threat to service delivery and to the greatly improved performance of Sussex police. It really is not a decent or proper way to deal with Sussex police authority.

Paul Goggins: I am happy to pay tribute to Sussex police for its work, both in its financial administration
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and in front-line policing. It achieved impressive efficiency savings for the current year, and the expectation is that it will make further efficiencies next year. That expectation is not unusual now in any public service. There is an expectation of an ongoing search for efficiencies that can feed back in additional cash for the front-line services that we want more of.

For the first time, this year the Government have provided planning totals for two years. I shall set out the police funding settlement for 2006–07. The figures for 2007–08 were set out as part of the provisional settlement announced and made on 31 January, and will be finalised next year. The settlement will support our key policing priorities published in the national community safety plan: reducing overall crime; bringing more offenders to justice; providing dedicated, visible, accessible and responsive neighbourhood police teams; tackling serious and organised crime, including improved intelligence and information sharing between partners; and protecting the country from both terrorism and domestic terrorism.

The total provision for policing grants and central provision in 2006–07 will be £10.574 million, an overall increase of 5.1 per cent. on the previous year. Most of this provision—some £7.372 million—is for the police general grant, which increases by 3.3 per cent. This allows us to provide a broadly flat-rate grant increase of 3.1 per cent.

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