Previous Section Index Home Page

23 Jan 2007 : Column 399WH—continued

10.47 am

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): I thank the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) for giving me the time that is required to respond to this important debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate at a timely moment. My right hon. Friend has an unrivalled reputation in this House for his concern about care in the community—I use that term to refer to social services and social work issues and also more generically to refer to his concern about his constituents and the most vulnerable in our countries. I want to emphasise that the Government take that concern very seriously. It has been of personal concern to me throughout my career, and this is an important opportunity for us to discuss the range of issues that contribute to those difficulties.

We need to put the subject in a global context. There is a huge global hunger for energy. The emerging economies about which we hear so much—China, India and the others—need fuel to fuel their economies. That is why worldwide prices have increased, often quite dramatically. In the last calendar year we saw the price of a barrel of oil sky-rocketing to record levels. That price has now eased. It is a reasonable prediction to say that the era of cheap energy has gone for ever.

Last winter, gas supply was tight due to the faster than expected decline in North sea production and the gap between the new import projects that were being put in place. That led to high gas prices and in turn to high electricity prices.

I said that we were awash with gas because I felt that it was my duty to report accurately to the House that we were indeed awash at the time. I seem to recall certain people—not the hon. Gentleman but outsiders—saying that we were heading for a three-day week because of energy shortages. I do not think that I have heard any apology for their acting as Jeremiahs last winter; it was totally inappropriate.

The market has responded and is responding to expected tight supply by delivering new import infrastructures. As has been noted, they include the Langeled pipeline with supplies from Norway, which is hugely significant, the Balgzand Bacton pipeline with supplies from the Netherlands, and a further upgrade to the Belgian interconnector. The Teesside liquefied natural gas importation project is also due to commission shortly. Also significant is that long-term gas storage at the so-called Rough storage facility has, after a disastrous fire, returned to use. I had the opportunity to visit it at the end of last year, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the workers who, in difficult and hazardous circumstances got that storage facility back into action, to the benefit of the British public and our economy.

23 Jan 2007 : Column 400WH

The gas supply situation is therefore easier than it was last winter. That, combined with lower demand due to relatively mild weather so far—although it is colder this week—has resulted in significantly lower wholesale gas prices than we had last winter. However, as we heard, many customers still face high energy bills. The United Kingdom has an independent regulator and competitive markets in order to ensure that consumers get a good deal. In addition, the Government make special provision to help vulnerable customers.

Britain's energy market is regulated by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, the independent regulator. Ofgem’s key role is to ensure competitive energy prices for consumers. Ofgem has wide-ranging powers to act if need be. It can fine companies up to 10 per cent. of annual turnover if it finds evidence of anti-competitive behaviour. It can also refer the market to the Competition Commission if it finds evidence that competition is not working. Ofgem has said that it will be keeping a close eye on suppliers in order to ensure there is no undue delay in passing on substantial reductions in wholesale prices. I very much welcome that.

However, Ofgem has indicated that there is typically a six to nine month lag between changes to the wholesale price, both up and down, and changes to the domestic price. As has been noted, that is because energy companies buy their gas several months in advance in order to ensure they have enough to meet customers’ needs. Evidence shows a lag between increases in the wholesale price of gas and increases in domestic retail prices. For example, wholesale gas prices rose sharply in November 2005 and remained high for several months. There was no immediate or concurrent increase in domestic tariffs at the time, although domestic prices did rise during 2006. I am pleased to note that one or two suppliers have already announced their intention to reduce their prices as soon as possible. I would expect, in our competitive energy market, that others will follow suit. In the light of this important debate, and given the strength of feeling, early announcements from other companies would be welcome.

We should remember that we have one of the most competitive energy markets in the world. Until fairly recently, UK consumers had benefited, over a sustained period, from the lowest energy prices in Europe. Even with the latest price rises, UK domestic electricity prices, including taxes, are below the EU median level; and domestic gas prices remain the lowest in Europe. I am not sure that many will believe me when I say that, but those are the facts as we understand them. However, we recognise the impact of gas and electricity prices at their current levels—and they differ considerably from one household to another. How can we minimise the impact of those prices, and what are the Government doing to help those least able to afford them?

Customers may be able to reduce their energy costs by switching supplier. We strongly encourage that in a competitive market. It may also be possible to reduce energy costs by implementing energy efficiency measures. That is good for the environment as well as for our wallets or purses. Affordable heating is of key importance, particularly for the more vulnerable in our
23 Jan 2007 : Column 401WH
communities, and we have taken a number of important measures, which were acknowledged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.

Warm Front—its equivalent in Scotland is the Central Heating Programme and Warm Deal; in Wales, it is the Home Energy Efficiency scheme; and in Northern Ireland, it is the Warm Homes scheme—is the Government's key programme. All those programmes provide free central heating and insulation measures to qualifying households. Although Warm Front provides help for individual homes, in his pre-Budget Report, the Chancellor announced an additional £7.5 million to help develop and deliver more concentrated local initiatives such as Warm Zones. Those are co-funded by regional development agencies’ community interest companies. Delivery of those programmes is being piloted in the north-east and in Yorkshire and Humberside.

We also heard about winter fuel payments. I know from my constituents how welcome it is to receive £200—for those over 80, it is £300—in that rather critical period just before the winter. Other benefits have been acknowledged. I highlight the importance of pension credits, which successfully give a great deal more money to the older elderly, many of whom are women, vulnerable and live alone.

We heard a good deal, understandably, about back-charging this morning. The delay by suppliers in recalibrating pre-payment meters that use tokens rather than keys can cause problems for customers who are suddenly faced with sharply rising payments. I welcome the fact that Scottish and Southern Energy Group and British Gas have agreed to waive any rises until the meters are physically recalibrated. I know that Ofgem is working with other suppliers on that issue and that suppliers are phasing out token meters. I am sure that companies will want to listen to what has been said today.

23 Jan 2007 : Column 402WH

In March, we will publish the energy White Paper. It will expand and take forward the themes and issues outlined in our Energy Review. It will include the question of allowing everyone to be confident of being able to heat their home properly. The House will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt the content of the White Paper on fuel poverty or other issues, but I have heard and absorbed what has been said about corporate social responsibility and social tariffs.

There has been much discussion about European Union liberalisation. All that I would say on that important issue is that we are pleased by the progress being made by the Commission. The lack of gas flowing through the interconnector last winter, when the British economy and the British public needed it, was a matter of concern. We are pleased by the tough action being taken by the Commission, which includes the seizure of documents in dawn raids on the offices of big European energy companies. Although there is much to be done, the Commission is now moving in the right direction.

It has been a significant debate. Understandably, much of our energy policy focuses on energy security—the supplies that we need in the energy environment of a difficult and challenging world. A complementary debate is taking place on global warming and climate change. However, a third issue is of great importance—namely, that our constituents, particularly the most vulnerable, the elderly and others in difficult circumstances, should have their energy supplied at a not unreasonable cost, with the right to live in warm homes.

Once again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, given his great track record, on securing this important debate. The issue is vital to many of the most vulnerable in our society.

23 Jan 2007 : Column 403WH

Greater Manchester Police

11 am

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I was delighted to discover that I was successful in securing this debate on the funding of Greater Manchester police. I feel certain that all hon. Members will agree that police funding is important, even if hon. Members from different parties have varying opinions on how much funding is required, how many police officers are needed and how to strike the correct balance between police officers and police community support officers on our streets.

I pay tribute to the work of the local police in Manchester, particularly in my area of south Manchester where Chief Superintendent Alan Cooper has an excellent team of police officers and staff who are committed to protecting local people. I give a special mention to Sergeant Paul Kinrade, Sergeant Brian Ogilvie, Police Constable Alan Dean and the crime reduction adviser Steve Hobson, all of whom show a real commitment to community policing in south Manchester.

There is significant good will among local people towards the police, but unfortunately that good will is running thin, not because the police are not doing their job properly, but because they are struggling to deal with the increasing workload. Nearly all the complaints that I have received about Greater Manchester police concern the time that it takes to respond to an incident, which is sometimes several days for a burglary or a low priority incident. In addition, people have not seen police officers or community support officers on the streets in their area for a long time.

Last week, representatives from the 43 police forces in England and Wales warned of a looming cash shortage. The Police Federation has claimed that 999 calls will take longer to answer and that the number of fully trained officers will be reduced. That predicted crisis is due to a curb on spending that is keeping increases down to inflation levels following previous increases in police funding.

Jan Berry, chair of the Police Federation, said:

The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities point out that the effective freeze on funding will not cover the increased demands on service and have argued that an annual increase of at least 5 per cent. is required just to stand still. That is simply because of the increasing demands on our police, such as the additional 3,000 new offences since 1997.

Michael Todd, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, said that Manchester needs at least 8,000 officers to police the streets effectively, and that ideally he would like more than 10,000. In the current financial year, around the Christmas period the number of police officers stood at 7,849. That is more than 100 fewer than the number quoted to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) in response to a parliamentary question, in which the figure was 7,959. The actual number, 7,849, is much lower than the figure that Michael Todd has said he requires. In fact, numbers are more than 100
23 Jan 2007 : Column 404WH
below what the Government have set as the minimum level of policing in Greater Manchester. According to the chairman of the police authority, Greater Manchester police could be fined around £27,000 per officer for each officer below that minimum number. I hope that the Minister will give hon. Members an assurance that that will not be the case.

During the last set of local elections in May 2006, the Labour party in my constituency dishonestly claimed on leaflets that the number of police officers would increase this year by 143. In the council chamber, Labour councillors claimed that the reduction in police numbers was not really a cut because Greater Manchester police would simply not replace officers that were leaving or retiring. That is new Labour spin worthy of the Minister himself or any other competent Minister.

On 21 December, along with my three Greater Manchester Liberal Democrat colleagues—my hon. Friends the Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and Cheadle (Mark Hunter), who I am glad to see are in the Chamber—I met the independent chairman of the police authority, Derek Osbaldestin, to discuss the looming budget crisis. He admitted that we are facing a deficit of £1.3 million for the coming financial year, but that there is a projected shortfall of £25.9 million for 2008-09 and £12.2 million for 2009-10.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman accept the figures that I recently received from the Greater Manchester police authority on the 2007-08 budget? Although, as he rightly says, a gap of £1.3 million was identified at the time of the briefing that he has, funding from the neighbourhood policing review delivered £1 million of additional funds and the council tax base adjustment delivered an additional £300,000. The gap has been closed and the budget is balanced for next year.

Mr. Leech: It is certainly the case that the chairman suggested that the budget deficit for the next financial year would not be a problem. However, he categorically stated that there would be a significant problem for the following year, 2008-09.

Ann Coffey: Does the hon. Gentleman accept what Greater Manchester police said about the budget of 2008-09, which is that changes to Government policy relating to the crime fighting fund adjustment, counter-terrorism and police community support officers funding has enabled the delivery of significant savings compared with that predicted and has significantly reduced potential shortfalls? The Greater Manchester police authority chair is very happy that the Government have listened to APA and ACPO and changed the policy to the benefit of police authorities and Greater Manchester police.

Mr. Leech: When we met the independent chairman, he made it clear that the figures were incredibly high and related to a work in progress. However, he did not see any way that the full shortfall proposed for 2008-09 could be met.

The figures are here in black and white. It is not the chief constable crying wolf; the figures relate to the
23 Jan 2007 : Column 405WH
resources required to maintain the service. For example, £1.5 million is needed for the tactical fire arms unit to ensure appropriate support in dealing with volume crime reduction, major events and counter-terrorism. There will be a £2.4 million loss of funding for mandatory drug testing and an additional £100,000 is required for the gang unit to address the increase in gang activity and shootings. Some £500,000 more will be needed for intelligence officers to maintain the excellent and improving grading from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary.

The Liberal Democrats in Greater Manchester have been fighting the case for our underfunded police force and I draw hon. Members’ attention to the early-day motion in my name, and the names of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, which highlights the projected shortfall and calls on the Government to stop financially penalising Manchester to the tune of £14 million this year and £35 million in total.

My early-day motion states:

I urge hon. Members from Greater Manchester on all sides of the political divide to support that early-day motion and reject the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). I am pleased that she has turned up to take part in the debate, but it is unfortunate that her amendment is supported by a number of Labour Members in Greater Manchester. The amendment would remove the concern surrounding the proposed shortfall mentioned in my early-day motion.

The amendment states that the House

Perhaps if the hon. Lady had spent some time consulting her own constituents in Stockport on their opinion of recent reductions in police numbers and increases in crime, she might have thought twice before tabling such an amendment. Its self-congratulatory tone just shows how complacent Labour has become.

Ann Coffey: I do not mind the hon. Gentleman disagreeing with me about the facts, but he is erring on the side of personal abuse and I do not think that that is acceptable.

Mr. Leech: Forgive me if I have caused offence, Mr. Amess. My remarks were certainly not intended as
23 Jan 2007 : Column 406WH
personal abuse. I was merely suggesting that the hon. Lady should perhaps have consulted some of her local residents to see what they thought about cuts in police numbers and increases in crime.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Home Office’s own assessment is that Greater Manchester police should have more funding and they are prevented from getting it only by the crazy grant and damping rules, which mean that money is being withheld?

Mr. Leech: I completely agree. The addition of the money that we are not receiving as a result of the damping mechanism would almost eliminate our budget deficits.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from police manpower, does he agree that the problem is in some ways even worse than he has suggested because after a period of years of very tight settlements for Greater Manchester police, there has already been a degree of backfilling, whereby uniformed officers are now doing jobs that previously would have been done by civilian officers? That is taking more police off our streets than sometimes appears to be the case.

Mr. Leech: I agree, but one of the problems stems from significant underfunding of the police force while the Conservatives were in power before 1997.

On the crime figures, the hon. Member for Stockport suggests in her amendment that she

Next Section Index Home Page