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Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise specific issues relating to the funding of the Durham constabulary. Will my hon. Friend the Minister acknowledge that that constabulary is facing particular problems with its budget over the next two years, and that substantial cuts in front-line services are likely to occur unless urgent action is taken by the Department to address the problems?

There is particular concern about pensions and how they are funded, not least because Durham has had an historically low level based budget. I shall demonstrate that by referring to a recent communication between the Durham constabulary and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones). It is said that the funding gap for the authority, given a 5 per cent. increase in the council tax precept, will be £6 million in 2006–07, rising to £7 million and then £8 million in 2007–08 and 2008–09 respectively. We can use some reserves in the short term to try to close that gap, but we are looking to reduce our base budget by £8 million over the next three years. That will impact on the performance of the force as it will require a reduction in the number of police officers and police community support officers. Overtime will also be reduced as well as the number of civilian staff, leading to de-civilianisation. In addition, there will be a scaling down of support services. Clearly, we do not wish to see such consequences.

Can the Minister give reassurance to my constituents that the gains that have been made across the county in terms of increased police numbers and a reduction in
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crime levels will not be jeopardised by a failure to take action to solve the current funding problem? Can the Minister give the House an assurance that he will re-examine the funding of the Durham constabulary with a view to ascertaining whether measures can be taken to solve the current problems?

6.48 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), the city where I was educated. I am sorry to hear that the hon. Lady's police force is suffering in the same way as the Surrey police force.

I could not help but reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) about the people of west Yorkshire smelling the gravy. I have a pretty good idea of where the gravy train is coming from. Any examination of what has happened to the funding of the Surrey police since 1997 makes the position extremely clear.

I tabled a question to the Home Secretary a few days ago to try to establish exactly what had happened to the funding of the Surrey police per head of population since 1997. The answers were startling. In 1997–98, the Home Office police grant per head of population was £57.80. The council tax per head of population was £19.51. Since then, in cash terms that are unadjusted for inflation, the Home Office grant has fallen to £54.29 per head of population, which has been mirrored by a fall in the national non-domestic rates per head of population from £19.72 to £16.25. The revenue support grant has also fallen from £20.01 to £15.39 per head of population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made clear, council tax has gone up by 192 per cent. in real terms since 1997. It is supporting the funding of the county constabulary of Surrey, the grant for which is bouncing along the floor. Of course, the hon. Member for Pudsey wants the floor to be withdrawn so that West Yorkshire police can go through the ceiling.

We must examine why that has taken place. Surrey police has consistently faced the most stringent financial conditions over the past eight years. On two occasions during my time in the House, I took two delegations of Surrey Members, representatives of the police authority and the then chief constable to see the relevant Minister. I first took such a delegation to see the Home Secretary when he held down the position of Minister with responsibility for the police. I went with the then chief constable, Sir Ian Blair, and I had the pleasure of taking Mr. Denis O'Connor at a later stage. Those two gentlemen have gone on to better and greater things, certainly in the case of Sir Ian Blair.

Mr. Paterson : They did not close the gap.

Mr. Blunt: As my hon. Friend pertinently remarks, my efforts and those of the two gentlemen failed to persuade the Home Office that the financial situation of Surrey police was desperate. They certainly failed to the close the funding gap for Surrey.

I did not hear the Minister make any attempt to explain the fact that an enormous discrepancy remains between real inflation and police inflation. He has made
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generally welcome changes regarding the provision of police pensions, which will give more certainty, although he has docked 0.1 per cent. off the rise to the police to pay for it. He achieved that by making an adjustment to the floor, so there will be a loss to Surrey police and all other forces receiving floor-level funding. Police inflation remains at 5.7 per cent., which is a different rate from the retail prices index inflation. The difference between the two for Surrey police represents about £4.5 million. Police pensions continue to contribute to police inflation, even with the new arrangements, as do police staff pay, police officer pay, meeting national requirements—such as implementing the recommendations of the Bichard inquiry—and the consequences of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The cost to Surrey police of removing the floor would be some £15.7 million, or about 600 staff. Surrey is the lowest funded police authority in the country when measured by funding per head of population.

The reason why that has happened since 1997 is explained by the detail of the formulae in "The Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2006/07". The Minister said that he did not really have responsibility for formulae because they were local-government based. He said that they were not really anything to do with the Home Office because they were based on a general appreciation of need. However, sitting inside the formulae are the insidious changes that have been made across the piece to the public services of the United Kingdom, which have had a hugely deleterious effect on those services, especially in the south and south-east of England. A disaster has overtaken the Surrey police and the health service in Surrey. I have the hospital trust with the biggest debt in the United Kingdom, and the Surrey and Sussex strategic health authority is in the realms of financial disaster, too. All those problems are connected to the formulae that are applied to public sector funding.

One or two little vignettes in the report deserve to be brought to the House's attention. I confess that I am no expert on the matter, but I have read the report and attempted to understand it. There appear to be seven separate police crime top-ups in the principal formula. I do not know whether that is because the formula has changed every year since the Government came into office because they decided to make new adjustments each year. One sees that indicators such as single parent households, student housing and a category called "hard pressed" appear more than once in the top-ups. My favourite factor applied to funding is in police crime top-up No. 6: the log of population sparsity. Population sparsity causes a reduction in the amount of money made available to the police, so the more sparse an area's population, the more money the Government remove from its police allocation. To make up for that, there is a police sparsity top-up in the formula to add back money.

The document is enormously difficult to understand. I doubt that the Minister understands all the details because he would need a degree of mathematics to know how the formulae are determined. I would be interested to find out how they are determined, but they are way beyond my A grade at A-level maths—[Hon. Members: "Ooh!"] I have to say that I took the exam in the days
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when A grades at A-level maths actually meant something. One would need to be an expert statistician to understand how the formulae are determined.

There is another extraordinary multiplication factor in police crime top-up No. 7. It says that wealthy achievers are to be multiplied by 3.0493—whatever that means—and then subtracted from the funding formula. Having included adjustments in the formulae to take account of student housing, young male unemployment, overcrowded households and all the rest, why on earth is there a need to penalise people who are identified as wealthy achievers? I looked in the document to find out the definition of wealthy achievers. If one wishes to be able to afford to buy a property in Surrey these days, being a wealthy achiever is probably a basic necessity.

Mr. Heath: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going to draw attention to the adjustment for terraced accommodation because it has worked rather well for Avon and Somerset constabulary, as it has been considered to be a factor of deprivation for Georgian Bath and Georgian Clifton.

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