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I assure my hon. Friend that the decision to withdraw the funding for the adjudication scheme to support the code of good practice for agri-environment schemes and diversification projects within agricultural tenancies was not taken lightly. It was part of an urgent wider review of expenditure within DEFRA that resulted from the current financial pressures on the Department, of which he is well aware. There has not been a single application for the scheme since its launch in December 2005. Given the financial constraints on the Department and in light of the lack of take-up, it did not seem a sensible use of funds to continue to allocate money to the scheme for a further three years. That decision does not affect the validity of the code of good practice, which remains an important document for landlords and tenants when considering proposals for diversification.

With regard to an early retirement scheme for tenant farmers, I know that fellow Ministers have considered this issue carefully in the past few years. The Government have decided against introducing such a scheme because it would not provide value for money compared with the large costs that are likely to be involved and because it would offer little public benefit. That view is shared by the policy commission on the future of farming and food. Further, funding a retirement scheme could mean having to close down or shrink other grant schemes that provide valuable public benefits, such as the agri-environment schemes. That would be a poor shift of resources.

On the single payment scheme, common agricultural policy payments have always been capitalised into land values and rents to some extent, and that process would have continued whatever model of the SPS had been adopted in England. Some argue that the effect would have been less if a different model had been chosen but, as my right hon. Friend who is now the Foreign Secretary made clear at the time, we needed to avoid a situation in which subsidies were allocated solely on the basis of past activities undertaken in the context of production-linked support policies. It would be difficult to justify an ongoing link between support payments and business decisions taken 10 or more years earlier. We now operate in a very different policy context.

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Mr. Drew: Does the Minister agree that one way in which real opportunities can be created is by collectivising decisions so that we get local food chains? Tenants are ideally suited to work co-operatively to supply local schools. Surely we should be looking to do that with the single farm payment.

Barry Gardiner: Without linking it to the single farm payment, I acknowledge what my hon. Friend said about the importance of local food chains and the capacity of the sector to work co-operatively to put them in place. That is an important part of the whole strategy of sustainable food and farming that we want to be developed.

The system of occupancy conditions known as agricultural ties is a policy rather than a law for which the conditions are set by local planning authorities, which have appropriate powers to enforce them. I understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government has no plans to review that policy.

The suggestion that landlords should receive capital gains tax relief is a matter for the Treasury. The provision of affordable housing both for rent and for purchase is vital for a prosperous and vibrant countryside because it helps to support diverse communities that are socially and economically vibrant and inclusive. We established the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which reported to Government in April of last year, and some 4,000 homes have been built in villages across England in the past couple of years—500 more than planned. We still have plans for more homes to be built in the next two years as we work towards ensuring that there are affordable homes in all rural areas in the future. DEFRA and the DCLG have worked together closely to ensure that the new planning policy statement on housing appropriately reflects the needs of rural communities. It retains the exception sites policy, but goes further in promoting a positive and proactive approach to planning that is informed by evidence of local need.

My hon. Friend talked about the Community Land Trust. I thought his idea interesting, but it would be for local authorities to look to funding for that.

Mr. Greg Pope (in the Chair): Order. We must move to the next debate.

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Rural Policing: Gloucestershire

1 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to be able to discuss rural policing in Gloucestershire. I am glad to be flanked by two Conservative colleagues from the county, my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), although I should not forget the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has remained in his place from the previous Adjournment debate.

I shall focus on two points. First, I should remind everyone that both the rural and the urban parts of our county need their fair share of policing resources. Secondly, I should draw attention to the financial squeeze that is likely to come from Government funding pressures over the next couple of years. I want to know whether the Minister can help and whether we can start that dialogue and process now.

My starting point is my constituents’ feeling that there is an imbalance between the policing in the urban and the rural parts of the county. The Forest and Gloucester basic command unit has the most officers in the county—336—but the bulk of them are based in Gloucester rather than in the Forest. One thing that irks my constituents and local officers is that those officers are extracted from the Forest of Dean to deal with public order policing in the city of Gloucester, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings. I have been out on patrol with the police, and I have seen how stretched they are when dealing with incidents at those times. They then have a difficult balance in respect of prioritising calls from members of the public.

It is reasonable to expect the deployment of police to be focused, to some extent, on the areas that have the highest levels of crime. Forest’s population is three quarters that of Gloucester, but its crime level is only a quarter of Gloucester’s. I do not expect the level of policing to reflect only the level of population, as to do so would be unreasonable, but to have it entirely determined by the crime level is also not reasonable. People in rural parts of the county and the Forest of Dean pay their fair share of local tax, through the council tax police precept, and of national taxation. They should expect a reasonable level of coverage by the police in terms of response times, beat patrolling and all the things that they should be able to take for granted, as their neighbours who live in Gloucester and Cheltenham are able to do.

We need to examine how this area is managed. Recent parliamentary questions, albeit not ones broken down on a county or constituency basis, have shown that rural crime is rising. Rural parts of the country are not peaceful idylls. Instances of violence against the person rose from slightly fewer than 70,000 crimes in 1998 to slightly fewer than 160,000 in 2005. The rise was more than 100 per cent., which is large even when one takes into account changes in recording methods.

Surveys in my constituency, and I am sure that the same applies in other areas, show that crime, law and order and policing are a key concern—second only to the national health service. People expect those issues to be addressed, and about 60 per cent. of constituents who responded to surveys considered that having more
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police officers out on the beat patrolling our towns and villages was the best way of addressing them. Such an approach not only deals with crime when it occurs but acts as a deterrent.

I tabled some questions to Ministers on this issue. A recent parliamentary answer by the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety showed that the number of police on the street in Gloucestershire had declined from 593 in 2003 to 456 in 2006. I immediately had an irate chief constable on the phone to me pointing out that those numbers were inaccurate, that the Home Office had changed the basis on which they were calculated and that I was not making a like-for-like comparison between the two years. I hope that the relevant Minister will correct the record and issue accurate figures.

Despite that, only about a third of police officers are out on the streets, as the Home Secretary puts it. The situation makes me wonder what the rest are up to. The increasing bureaucratic requirements are tying up the police and not giving them the chance to do the job that my constituents and the public more generally expect them to do.

I recommend to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) the book by police constable David Copperfield—it is a pseudonym—“Wasting Police Time”. The writer is a serving police officer who spends a great deal of his time

He deals with a sea of paperwork, and spends far too little time doing the part of the job that he loves, the bit where he gets to chase criminals and arrest them, which was the reason why he joined the police force and is also what the majority of our constituents want the police to be doing.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key things that the public expect, particularly in rural areas, is high visibility policing? One of the good innovations in that respect was the introduction of police community support officers. Does he agree that it is reprehensible of the Government to resile from their manifesto commitment, which I believe was to put 26,000 PCSOs on the street? Their doing so will mean that Gloucestershire will get 51 fewer PCSOs than it originally thought it would.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend takes me a little further into my speech. I was just coming on to the issue of police officers on the beat, but I want to finish the previous point. It would be helpful if more freedom and flexibility were given to chief constables, and whatever local policing arrangements are in place, to deal with their areas. There should be much less control and direction from central Government.

My hon. Friend mentioned PCSOs. They have worked in safer community teams, and that has been popular and effective. The high visibility patrols in my constituency and others have had an effect on antisocial behaviour. Officers have told me that one of the huge benefits that PCSOs bring by being out on the street and visible, and by building relationships with local shopkeepers, retailers, business people and others,
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is that they get a significant amount of intelligence, which they are then able to pass back to their colleagues. Such information can be significant in dealing with serious criminal behaviour and it allows people to deal with things before they happen, rather than afterwards, which is what we want. That is valuable.

As my hon. Friend said, it is disappointing that the Government have gone back on their manifesto commitment to provide 24,000 PCSOs nationally and will not give that funding to constabularies. The record shows that that was a personal pledge made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2004. This is another example of Gordon Brown failing to fund the promises that he makes—perhaps that is something that we can look forward to in the future.

Last year, the Government agreed to provide funding for the PCSO target over two years, but in November they decided to keep the total at 16,000, thus abandoning a key plank of the neighbourhood policing strategy. The funding for next year’s PCSOs has been reduced, and therefore the provision for the PCSOs that Gloucestershire was expecting will not arrive. The situation may be even worse than my hon. Friend suggested, because I think that the chief constable had been expecting 74 extra PCSOs. The county will not now get those PCSOs. Out of the money that the Government did make available on PCSOs, they have provided just £160,000 extra for neighbourhood policing, which will cover the annual cost of just seven PCSOs. That was hardly what we or the constabulary were expecting.

In May 2005, the Conservatives won control of Gloucestershire county council for the first time in two decades, with a manifesto commitment to provide 63 new police officers from county council resources, which is roughly one for each electoral division, specifically for community policing. The agreement has been made with the chief constable, who still has operational control, as is right and proper. Those officers will be available broadly for community policing.

Those police officers, who are delivering on a Conservative local manifesto promise, are starting to be recruited and trained—12 have been recruited and trained in 2006-07, with a further 17 to come next year and the following two years, so that the total of 63 will have been delivered by the time of the next local elections. I was surprised to see the extraordinary comments of the deputy leader of the county council Labour group. He welcomed the additional officers three times, but then got himself confused by saying that he was not sure that he was happy with them and wondered whether perhaps the police authority ought to fund them. He seemed to be saying either that he wanted the police precept to go up again or that he wanted the police officers to be removed, having welcomed them. That did not seem to be a very good start and he was either out of touch or confused, or both.

I am sure that the Minister will mention the rise in police numbers nationally since 1997, which, to be fair, have risen from 128,000 to 140,000. It is worth pointing out that general Government funding has not kept up
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with the rise in costs. In real terms, the Government grant funds only 120,000 of those police officers, and even with the crime fighting fund, the numbers would have remained roughly stable. The big rise—this is certainly true in Gloucestershire—has been almost entirely funded by local people through the police part of their council tax. Before the Minister praises the Government, I hope that he will at least acknowledge that the increase in the number of police officers is significantly due to the decisions of local police authorities and not the Government. Indeed, in Gloucestershire, the local police authority, at some cost to its reputation, increased the precept by 51 per cent. a few years ago. That was not at all popular, but it is the only reason why we have a significantly increased number of officers in Gloucestershire. If it had not done that, we would have seen a decrease in the number of police officers, not an increase.

My final point is about police funding. In 2007-08, the year coming, the general grant for Gloucestershire from the Home Office will increase to £56.5 million, which is a rise of 3.6 per cent. However, the other specific grants that Gloucestershire receives will decrease overall by 7 per cent. as most of them are either frozen, decreased or eliminated. Total central funding from the Government to Gloucestershire on a like-for-like basis for 2007-08 is only about 1.5 per cent. over the year before. Police authority precept rises are capped at 5 per cent. and the actual increase in police costs, largely due to pay and other cost pressures, is well above the increase in funding. In 2007-08, the constabulary faces a deficit of almost £6 million just to maintain services, let alone to develop or improve them. To cover that, the reserves are likely to have to be used.

In 2008-09, which is the year about which the constabulary is most concerned, it seems that the situation will deteriorate. Indications from the Home Office suggest that funding is likely to be frozen at around 2.7 per cent., and much of that is likely to go towards prisons and the immigration service. The police are likely to have real problems because costs will continue to rise.

All in all, the financial outlook for the next couple of years is bleak. As well as responding to my points about the deployment of police officers, I should be grateful if the Minister could say something to put my constituents’ and even the chief constable’s minds at rest.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): rose—

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): If the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) wants to make a point, I shall allow him to intervene.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. I am pleased to be here this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this important debate and the way in which he presented his case. I am also pleased to see his hon. Friends the Members the Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Tewkesbury, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I know that for all
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of them, whatever our differences, this is an important and serious debate. I welcome the constructive and thoughtful way in which the hon. Member for Forest of Dean made his points, even if there are differences between us. If I fail to answer any of his points, it will not be a deliberate omission. He is at liberty to intervene and I shall respond appropriately.

The point to make at the beginning is that although I shall respond to some of the issues about police funding, the deployment of officers in the local area is of course an operational matter for the chief constable in liaison with the police authority. I guess that part of the reason for raising the matter is to raise those issues and I am sure that he has been in correspondence and had discussions with the chief constable.

I know something about Gloucestershire because I visited Cheltenham and Tewkesbury basic command unit a few months ago and went to Whaddon police station on 19 September. I had the opportunity to see at first hand the neighbourhood policing there and was impressed by the commitment of the local police officers. I have met the chief constable of Gloucestershire and was impressed. I am also impressed by the work that the police do in Gloucester and Gloucestershire and I would like publicly to commend them. I know that the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend join me in that commendation.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean will have heard some of the funding figures, but I need to put them on the record. There has been a huge increase in resources for the police service in England and Wales over a sustained period. On a like-for-like basis, Government grant and central spending on services for the police will have increased from £6.2 billion in 1997-98 to £11 billion in 2007-08, which is an increase of nearly £4.8 billion or a cash increase of 77 per cent. or, in real terms, more than 39 per cent. between 1997-98 and 2007-08. Gloucestershire and other police authorities and police services throughout the country will have received their fair share of those resources.

Provisional allocations for 2007-08 were announced as long ago as December 2005 to provide greater certainty and allow authorities such as Gloucestershire to improve medium-term planning. Police forces and police authorities have welcomed that. That is why we will move to a three-year settlement from 2008-09—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that—to try to provide some certainty for planning, although there will always be a debate about the level of those resources.

All police authorities, including Gloucestershire, are set to receive an increase in general formula grant, which makes up the great bulk of central Government support to the police of 3.6 per cent. That increase is both higher than the 3.1 per cent. increase in general grant this year and well above inflation, which was forecast to be 2.7 per cent. The hon. Gentleman will know that the consultation period on the provisional funding settlement for 2007-08 closed on 5 January. We are now considering the representations that we have received in response to the formal funding announcement that we made on 28 November and the House will debate the Government’s proposed settlement at the end of the month.

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