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9 Jan 2007 : Column 61WH—continued

Gloucestershire, like every other police force, has benefited from the good funding settlements of the past few years. Total Government funding for
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Gloucestershire will have increased from £51.7 million in 1997-98 to £70 million next year, which is an increase of more than £18 million or a cash increase of more than 35 per cent. However, it is only fair to acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point that police authorities throughout the country, including Gloucestershire, have made local decisions about the level of precept that they should charge, and district councils such as my own, which do not have a police authority function, have also purchased police community support officers. My authority has purchased six.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about Gloucestershire’s decision, which many authorities throughout the country have made. He wanted me to refer to that.

Mr. Harper: I acknowledged the increase in funding from year to year, but it is worth remembering that for local government, as well as the police, many of the costs facing constabularies are largely pay costs that are determined centrally. Pension costs are determined centrally and many of the framework and target regimes are given to police authorities and constabularies from the centre. So it is fair and reasonable to look not just at the increase in funding, but at the other side of the income and expenditure account and the costs that are imposed on those constabularies. My point was that the rise in forces’ incomes is not keeping pace with centrally imposed costs. That is where the problem lies.

Mr. Coaker: There is always a debate about costs and income. My point is that there has been a significant rise in income for Gloucestershire police from central Government. The hon. Gentleman asked me to recognise that local authorities, including Gloucestershire, make a valuable contribution to that. I was trying to respond to that point.

Gloucestershire will receive £56.5 million in general grants in 2007-08, an increase of 3.6 per cent. or £2 million over this year. That is in line with the broadly flat increase of 3.6 per cent. for all police authorities throughout England and Wales. It is worth noting that Gloucestershire would have received £600,000 less if we had applied the police funding formula strictly. Gloucestershire has been supported by the funding formula for many years, and it benefits from that method. I receive complaints from police forces throughout the country which lose money because we establish a funding floor so that others, including Gloucestershire, do not lose out according to the funding formula.

On top of the general grant that Gloucestershire will receive, there will be more than £13 million in specific grants and capital provision. That will include £1.8 million in special formula grant, a consolidation of former grants, which will include £770,000 from the rural policing fund. Police authorities have complete flexibility to spend formula grants as they choose. We have recently announced that from this year, the control of officer numbers that accompanied the largest specific grant, the crime fighting fund, is being lifted, as the hon. Gentleman noted. It is a major facet of funding flexibility, for which the police service has long campaigned, and if we are being honest, the policy is a real difficulty.

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We have responded to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities, which have asked us to stop ring-fencing money and give them the additional money so that police services can use it in their local areas as they see fit. That is what we have done. The changes that we have made, which brought about the reduction in police community support officer numbers to which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cotswold referred, were due to the flexibilities that the police service and the APA asked us to introduce. The APA press release following the change said that it was a welcome step in the right direction and “a positive step forwards”.

There is a tension, however. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean, the hon. Member for Cotswold and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud know that there is always a conflict between the national direction in which funds should be spent and local flexibility and decision making. We responded to the demand from local police services and authorities for flexibility, and we gave it to them. As a result, they are able to choose how they wish to spend the money.

There is a consequence. I am sure that in other debates people would say, “Central Government should get off the back of local services, let local people determine how best to deliver services in their area and let them make the choices which best fit that.” That is what we have done with those funds and resources.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, because I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) introduced the debate. However, I have some misgivings about the loss of the ring-fenced funding in rural areas, because it served a function by drawing attention to the need to police rural areas differently. I understand what my hon. Friend says and why the police wanted to remove the ring-fencing, but it has some adverse consequences.

Mr. Coaker: I take that point as I have tried to take others. This is an important debate, and the point of debates in Westminster Hall is to air differences of view. There is a tension between national, central direction and local flexibility. However, we have responded to ACPO and to the APA. Nationally, they said to us, “We want flexibility.” My hon. Friend referred to the rural fund. It was changed before this year and all rolled together partly in response to local police forces saying to us, “Please give us the money so that we can make the decisions about how best to use police resources in our area.” On rural policing generally, the allocation of resources throughout the force area is a matter for local decision making. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have talked to the chief constable and to other members of the police authority about the balance between urban and rural policing.

Mr. Harper: I accept the Minister’s point that it is helpful if police authorities are given the funds with as little ring-fencing as possible, but they must have the funds. One problem with the PCSO announcement was
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that although the Government did not tell constabularies to have a certain number of PCSOs, they did not give them all the money either. There was less money available nationally, the bulk of it went to London, and the one-off amount that the Gloucestershire constabulary received for neighbourhood policing was £167,000, which does not pay for much at all.

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman knows that in 2006-07 we funded 100 per cent. of PCSOs in Gloucestershire for five months. That figure was in the budget for 2006-07. In 2007-08, 100 per cent. of PCSOs will be funded at 75 per cent. of the cost. If we compare the money that Gloucestershire received for that five months in 2006-07 with the money in 2007-08, during which we are funding all PCSOs for the entire year at 75 per cent. of the cost, a figure that every constabulary throughout the country knew, we return to a 3.6 per cent. increase, rather than the 1.5 per cent. increase to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Neighbourhood policing is being introduced in Gloucestershire, and it is important: it provides the responsive, accountable and visible policing that we all wish to see. On 31 March 2006, Gloucestershire had 1,289 police officers, 156 more than in March 1997. Support staff are often missed out in any discussion of police officers, but they are an important part of the police service. The number of support staff working with those officers in Gloucestershire was 675, an increase of 240 since 1997. It helps with delivery.

Police numbers in the Forest and Gloucester basic command unit, which will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman, increased from 292 in March 2002 to 357 in March 2006. There were also 30 PCSOs by June 2006. It is interesting how the debate about PCSOs has moved on from opposition to their introduction to argument about their numbers. We should all pay tribute to the work that they do, as to be fair the hon. Gentleman has.

Recorded crime fell by 1 per cent. in Gloucestershire in 2005-06 compared with the previous year; there was an impressive 14 per cent. fall in domestic burglary and a 16 per cent. fall in vehicle crime. Within the Forest of Dean crime and disorder reduction partnership, there were also impressive falls in crime. The hon. Gentleman pointed out alleged funding difficulties with which we do not agree, but in the basic command unit in his constituency, overall crime was down by 10 per cent. Domestic burglary was down by 20 per cent. and vehicle crime was down by 26 per cent.

The fall in overall crime in the Forest of Dean is better than those recorded by more urban CDRPs. We should pay tribute to the work not only of the police, as he has, but of the Forest of Dean CDRP. I had a look at its website, and the different initiatives are impressive. While we debate the levels of resources and funding, it is important to point out, as I know the hon. Gentleman will, the successes in reducing crime in many areas, so that people feel safer on the street.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate. In rural areas, I understand that the target response time for police is still 20 minutes. If we know
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that, the criminals know that, and one can do an awful lot of damage to a house or to a person in 20 minutes. I am sceptical about Government targets anyway, but will the Minister consider that time?

Mr. Coaker: I shall, but I should have thought that that time was the maximum response time. Gloucestershire police, along with the police authority, will in most instances respond to a 999 call far more quickly than that.

The time is 1.29 pm, and I am not sure whether we have 10 seconds or 40 seconds left. However, I again congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean on securing the debate. Neighbourhood policing is an important issue.

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Coal Industry: Nottinghamshire

1.30 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I have no doubt that 2007 will be a challenging and perhaps critical year for the coal industry in Nottinghamshire, and I am delighted to have secured this debate so early in the new year.

There are just three collieries left in Nottinghamshire: Harworth, Welbeck and Thoresby. All of them are owned by UK Coal and all need substantial investment either now or fairly shortly, but UK Coal says that it does not have the resources to make that investment. Given that, it is not an over-exaggeration to say that all three collieries face closure in the relatively near future.

To explore the situation in a little more detail, Harworth is currently mothballed. There is a small maintenance team, and the pit is stopped off near the pit bottom because of spontaneous combustion. Moreover, £80 million is needed to access the top hard seams, which hold the third biggest coal reserves in the country. It is clear to me that without new investment, Harworth will close in the relatively near future. At Welbeck, the men are working hard: they have done everything asked of them and more. They have met all the targets but there is a face gap—a production gap—in February, and there has been long-term speculation that the pit is earmarked for closure by UK Coal. I know that the company intends to make an announcement later this year.

That leaves us with Thoresby, which also has a face gap coming, but has workable reserves until 2009. However, for a longer production period, £25 million of new investment is needed to secure its future.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend will know that the Mines Rescue Service has a statutory responsibility to respond very quickly to calls for support. Its headquarters is in north Nottinghamshire in Mansfield, and it is having great difficulty at the moment. Does he hope, as I do, that the Minister will refer to the Mines Rescue Service and how its continued role might underpin the future of coal mining in north Nottinghamshire and elsewhere in the country?

Paddy Tipping: The Minister will understand the situation well because I, my hon. Friend and people from the Mines Rescue Service have been to see him, and I know he was impressed by the efforts that they have made to expand their income outside the traditional setting. However, my hon. Friend is right: there is an awful lot more to be done to secure the future of the Mines Rescue Service.

To return to the three pits, I cannot overestimate the seriousness of the situation. Unless there is new investment, there is no future for the Nottinghamshire collieries. The situation is perfectly clear. UK Coal says that it cannot make that investment because it is tied into long-term contracts with electricity generators, such as Drax, EDF Energy and E.ON. Those contracts were signed when the price of world coal was low.
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World prices have now risen, but that has not been reflected in contract prices. The solution is simple: the contracts must be renegotiated. The generators tell me that they are prepared to talk, and some preliminary discussions have taken place. It is clear to me that we need better prices and long-term contracts so that UK Coal has an asset so that it can discuss investment for the future. I note that Drax, in its prospectus to the stock exchange, said:

Drax also says that if UK Coal fails, it may

That shows the significance of the problem: those negotiations will be difficult.

My view is that both parties, producers and generators, ought to get round the table to have structured, meaningful talks and put forward solutions. I do not think that that will be easy, but it is in all of our interests if a solution is found that meets the need to maintain domestic coal in this country. What is more, there needs to be a discussion about how much the generators are prepared to pay for security of supply so that domestic coal is readily available and we are not dependent on the vagaries of the international market. If all else fails, I call on the two parties to find an independent arbitrator, a mediator, to find a solution.

At the end of the day, we want better long-term contracts. Coal mining is capital intensive. There are long planning periods, and unless UK Coal can talk to its financial advisors about new, better, long-term contracts, within two to three years all the Nottinghamshire pits will close. What should the Government do? They have already accepted in their energy review that

Perversely, on the environmental side, things look better than they have for some years. New clean-coal technology is coming on and there is a focus on carbon capture and storage—moves which are strengthened by the Stern report. The pre-Budget report talked about the next steps, but the Minister knows that people are disappointed that the Government have not made money available for a demonstration plant. When new coal plant is being built in India and China at the rate of one a week, there are tremendous opportunities for UK environmental industry companies to develop that new technology.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I would like to say happy new year to everyone in the room.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is nonsensical that pits such as Harworth and the linked-up pit at
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Rossington in South Yorkshire are mothballed with millions of tonnes of reserves, while in my constituency contractors are falling over themselves to dig up the land? They propose to spend three years destroying natural and historic environment for half a million tonnes of coal, while tens of millions of tonnes of coal lie there and may well be sterilised.

Paddy Tipping: I share my hon. Friend’s scepticism on open-cast coal and I hope that the Government will not change planning regulations to make it easier for open-casters to develop.

I say to the Minister that I have been impressed with the setting up of the coal forum, which is an important strategic body. I accept that the Government cannot enter into direct negotiations and new contracts. As the Secretary of State told me in October:

He went on to say that he wanted to encourage people to talk

I hope that the Minister will reaffirm that message today and call for open talks. I hope that he will also encourage the coal forum to be ambitious and aspirational. There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a demand in the coal forum to set an aspirational target for domestic coal, which I hope will be in excess of 20 million tonnes a year. I know that there is scepticism about setting targets, but the Minister knows that there is an aspirational target of 20 per cent. for renewables by 2020. If it is good enough for renewables, why can it not be good enough for coal?

I hope that the Minister will ask the coal forum to consider some important issues. I hope that it will review the price assumptions and forecasts made by the generators on domestic and imported coal, and review the trading models of generators and producers to find a solution to the problem of market conditions that prevent investment in deep mines. The coal forum should quickly make recommendations to the Government on the action that can be taken to secure a workable, market-led approach that satisfies UK energy policy needs. There is an urgent need to address those questions and I hope that the coal forum will consider them and put proposals to the Minister before the White Paper, scheduled for late spring, is published.

I say bluntly to the Minister that I am pessimistic about the coal industry in Nottinghamshire. Unless there are ways of securing new contracts, the industry there will be finished. That will be followed closely by the closure of the deep coal industry in this country. It would be most difficult for him—it would be an indignity to him—if he had to rename his coal forum as the “imported coal forum” because that is all that it will have left to discuss. What is he going to say to the hard-working miners in Nottinghamshire who have done everything asked of them and more? They have responded flexibly to the demands of their employer, UK Coal. They are the most efficient miners in Europe and we should be bringing forward proposals to back them, not to sack them.

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