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23 Jan 2007 : Column 412WH—continued

A couple of years after that, in an effort to accelerate the process, the police authority asked every metropolitan borough in Greater Manchester to make a special increase in the police precept, so that extra police could be recruited. Stockport metropolitan borough agreed that it would do that, along with all the other boroughs, and an additional precept led to the recruitment of extra police officers. There is a feeling—I am sure that it cannot possibly be justified—that, with local funding having been raised to recruit
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extra police, the Treasury, the Home Office or somebody else has decided that the national funding can be throttled back a bit, and therefore that we will end up back where we started.

My hon. Friend set out the facts, but I should point out that when he and I went with our Liberal Democrat colleagues to see the chair of the police authority, we did so at his invitation. He wanted to explain to us the circumstances that the police authority faced. Among those circumstances is the fact that, owing to a shortage of money, the authority is not filling police vacancies, which means that the total number of police officers at the end of this financial year will be 216 fewer than at the beginning of the financial year. Because of the Home Office’s funding system, if the police authority is below the magic benchmark number, it will be penalised some more—by £27,000 for each police officer by which it is below the level, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr. McNulty: I was going to save my response to that point until my winding-up speech, but I cannot let this proceed. The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) was wrong when he suggested that there was a £27,000 penalty, and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) has just repeated that. When the crime fighting fund was lifted and the flexibility afforded forces was given—that was on 18 or 19 December, whenever the announcement was made—it was clearly implicit that the penalties that went with the crime fighting fund had also gone. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand funding and how the crime fighting fund works. That £27,000 penalty is not on the table and has not been since the announcement in December.

Andrew Stunell: I am delighted to hear that. I certainly did not want to mislead anybody intentionally; rather, I was repeating the information that the chairman of the police authority gave me shortly before Christmas. To the extent that I am out of date or that information is wrong, I am happy for the Minister to correct it.

The Home Office assumes the possibility of achieving 3 per cent. efficiency savings. Again, one of the paradoxes of the situation is that that has resulted in some de-civilianisation in Manchester, where backroom jobs are being taken by police officers who, in my judgment, should be on the front line. Fortunately, my constituents do not live in an area where gun crime is a big problem. On the whole, we do not have serious organised crime. What damages the quality of life of my constituents is low-level crime and antisocial behaviour. What enrages them is when they cannot get through on the police telephone number or, if they do get through, when they get no response. Even when my constituents get a response, they are treated not exactly casually, but not as a major priority. Of course the police force has to concentrate on the major priorities, but those are all signs of a force that is not addressing the things that are so important for my constituents. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the police will have the resources they need to deliver the service that my constituents want.

I apologise to you, Mr. Amess, and to the House, but I have to leave before the debate is concluded.

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11.45 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) on securing this important debate; and I congratulate those who have spoken on their contributions. As has been said, all of us are constituency MPs representing seats in Greater Manchester.

I begin by paying tribute to acting chief superintendent David Hull, Inspector Wright, who is responsible for the Rochdale township, and the officers who serve with them. For a long time in Rochdale, there has been a good partnership between the council and the police on tackling crime. Indeed, the town set up its crime partnership scheme back in 1995, before the Government had invented the idea; and we were pursuing the idea of community policing—what we called township policing—at the same time. The word “township” seems to have been banned in Greater Manchester, but we still use it.

During the past few years, crime has fallen in Rochdale. Apart from serious crime, we have seen reductions in burglary, car crime and so on. We have also seen new investment—in the new police stations at Littleborough and Milnrow and the refurbishment now taking place in Rochdale police station.

I do not want members of the Labour party to claim that we say that everything that has happened in the past few years has been bad. That is not the case. We are doing what the Government have enabled us to do when they rightly gave councils and other statutory bodies the three-year funding formula. That was supposed to enable authorities to plan ahead and to ensure that there are no sudden changes from year to year. However, at our meeting with the independent chair just before Christmas, it was found that over the three-year period Greater Manchester would be £26 million short of what it needed to deliver the services. That set alarm bells ringing, given that we had already had a tight situation over the previous 12 months. What I call the thin blue line is being stretched.

The improvements that we have seen have been hard-fought for over the last few years. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) said that councils agreed four years ago to a 36 per cent. increase in the precept to enable new officers to take up post, but their numbers are now dropping back. The current chief constable of Greater Manchester has done a fantastic job in shaping and setting the priorities for the force, but those aspirations about having enough police on the beat in order to deliver a community policing model are now seriously at risk. It is not the serious crime—the murders and the robberies—that suffers. As my hon. Friend said, it is the sort of low-level crime that people increasingly do not bother to report.

I give an example of the sort of problem faced by people in my constituency. It occurred in Littleborough between Christmas and the new year. Littleborough is part of the Pennine township. Many people think of Rochdale as being quite urban, but at least a third of it is rural. Gangs of youths from central Manchester came into Littleborough via the railway station and caused havoc there, in the shopping centre and out towards Todmorden. Shop windows were smashed,
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and one quite well-known local artist, Walter Kershaw, came out and tried to tackle the youths, but they threw stones through both his shop windows and then assaulted him. Thirty-five youths were involved in that attack. The police were called, and they came out, but only three officers were available at the time to deal with the problem. That is what I mean by the thin blue line. Thankfully, one of the people who assaulted Walter has been arrested, but people in Littleborough now feel threatened and frightened by what is happening. They feel that the problem has arisen because they are not in the centre, where all the action is. Unless police officers are on the beat in our townships, as the community model dictates, we shall not be able to deal with such issues. Indeed, that is why there are delays in answering the phone and responding to low-level issues. People are becoming increasingly disillusioned, and the good will that has been built up over the past few years is seriously at risk.

What is behind all this? As I said, the problem is the three-year funding formula. Greater Manchester is not asking for anything extra. Indeed, the Government produced a formula to say how much money Greater Manchester police should have, and if they applied it as it should be applied—without the damping—the majority of the funding problems would disappear. Police stations would not, for example, be shut for huge parts of the day. What is the point of spending a fortune on a brand-new police station at Littleborough if it is not open for much of the day? I went to the opening last year, but the reality on the ground is that the officers are not there and the station is not open. There is no point having it there, because people cannot use it.

The issue is the funding formula. The Minister needs to tell us why an area such as Greater Manchester, which has the largest force outside London, is not receiving the money that it deserves. It has serious problems, including serious gun crime. A few months ago, a gang from Manchester turned up at a nightclub in my area, and guns were shown. There are therefore serious problems, which must be dealt with, and we need to know why the formula will not be applied and why Greater Manchester is not being given the funding that it deserves. Otherwise, the good will, hard work and improvements of the past few years will be rolled back. I do not want to see that happen, and that is why this debate is timely and important. I hope that the Minister will give us the answers, because the people of Greater Manchester are also listening.

11.53 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Amess. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) on securing it and on the diligent and industrious way in which he goes about representing the interests of his constituents. We have also had very worthwhile contributions from several other hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) and for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), as well as the hon. Member
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for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who is a neighbour of mine in a constituency sense, and the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady).

Let me start by making it clear, as several hon. Members have sought to do already, that the purpose of the debate is certainly not to be critical of the Greater Manchester police authority, Greater Manchester police, their chief constable or anybody else involved in trying to do the job on the ground. On the contrary, I should like to compliment the police authority on the open way in which it has gone about ensuring that all Members in the Greater Manchester conurbation are precisely aware of the problems that it faces. The chairman, in particular, is to be given credit for inviting Members in just before Christmas to hear what the problems were. Put simply, the issue is that Greater Manchester police face a funding crisis, and that is what today’s debate is intended to deal with. As the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West said, this is precisely the time when we should be applying pressure to ensure that the Government understand Greater Manchester’s needs and, I hope, why we feel hard done by in comparison with other areas.

I happen to have in front of me the report that was given to those of us who attended the meeting with the chair of the police authority, and it gives a clear breakdown of the deficits for each of the next three years. For 2007-08, the shortfall will be £1.3 million. As we heard from the hon. Member for Stockport, moves are already being made to address that deficit; indeed, the police authority chairman told us that when we met just before Christmas. However, the £25.9 million figure for 2008-09 and the £12.2 million figure for 2009-10 will require an awful lot of tweaking if they are to be manageable in any way, shape or form.

Put simply, however, our contention is that those shortfalls will not be manageable unless there is a fundamental change in the funding formula, and we will see a greater diminution of the service to the people of Greater Manchester. Let us not forget that that will be in addition to the loss of 216 officers that we have already seen in Greater Manchester. The report makes it clear that those officers are lost for good, and none of the budget projections will lead to a recovery of the previous position. We have already lost 216 officers, but the police authority’s documentation makes it clear that, in addition, the budget shortfall will be £27 million over the next two years or £39 million over the next three years.

The hon. Member for Stockport talked about community policing. She was gracious enough to accept that Stockport, which is run by the Liberal Democrats, as opposed to the Labour party or the Conservatives, has seen a number of first-rate partnership initiatives with the police. As she rightly said, those have contributed to improved working, more joined-up thinking and a better all-round approach to crime and antisocial behaviour issues.

The hon. Lady talked in some detail about the strategy behind neighbourhood policing or community policing—whichever term hon. Members prefer. Again, all of us buy into that strategy, and there is no disagreement about it across the political spectrum. However, there is disagreement about whether it is being implemented. I appreciate that the hon. Lady, like me, is a glass-half-full, not a glass-half-empty
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person, but I do not recognise her description of responses, general attitudes or, indeed, the allocation of resources—perhaps she is just very fortunate to have more policemen in her constituency than I have in neighbouring Cheadle. However, although the theory of neighbourhood or community policing is first rate, the reaction of most of my constituents, and those of other hon. Members, is, “Frankly, it would be difficult for us to tell how good it is, because we don’t see much of it.”

I make that point in the context of a meeting that I attended last year with the head of the Metropolitan police, Sir Ian Blair. He told me and several colleagues—the Minister will of course know this in his capacity not only as a Minister, but as a London Member—about the wonderful way in which community policing in London means that there is a dedicated team of six police officers in every local government ward. That team includes a sergeant, two police constables and three PCSOs—wonderful! In a constituency such as mine, that would mean the equivalent of 42 dedicated officers working within the boundaries of the parliamentary constituency. My guess is that the reality is a handful of officers at any one moment.

Neither the borough commander, Neil Wain—for whom I have tremendous respect—nor the chief constable, Michael Todd, has tried to pretend to me that Stockport is getting anything like the community policing resources that other areas, particularly the capital, might have. I met the chief constable last autumn, and he told me—I am paraphrasing his words, but he has also made this claim publicly—that as long as Greater Manchester police continue to subsidise the Met to the tune of £14 million or £15 million a year, he does not see the situation changing.

I know full well that the Minister will be his usual robust self in answering these criticisms, but I hope that he will understand that most of the key facts and figures that we have repeated today have not been dreamed up by Liberal Democrat campaigners or Members of Parliament; they have come from the chief constable, the borough commander and the police authority. If the Minister wants to take the line of arguing with the facts and figures that we have presented, it is important that we make clear where they have come from.

Recorded crime is up by 3.6 per cent. The lack of police presence on our streets is a major worry. Hon. Members have made it clear that in our constituencies the concern is not so much organised crime or high-level crime; it is low-level, antisocial behaviour and petty vandalism—the kind of crime that makes people’s lives a misery. It affects not only constituencies that are largely socially deprived; it affects middle-class and affluent constituencies in just the same way.

People do not believe that there is an adequate police presence any longer. People say to me, “Mark, it’s getting more and more like the fire brigade. The police will come out if you ring 999, but you never see them on beat patrol.” I say again that I do not blame Greater Manchester police for that. I do not say that the Stockport borough commander has got his priorities wrong or anything like that. I simply say that the police are doing the best they can with insufficient resources.
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People are not satisfied with the lack of police presence on our streets. They do not feel safe to go about their business, particularly in the evenings, and they are, I think, increasingly disillusioned about the point of telephoning and reporting such incidents to the police, because they do not think that their calls will be followed up. Neighbourhood and community policing is a fine aspiration. We are all signed up to it, but the reality is that in too many of our areas there are very serious concerns about the lack of police presence and about the low-key petty vandalism and antisocial behaviour that blight too many lives.

I hope that the Minister will address our concerns seriously. The early-day motion that was referred to and today’s debate are part of our genuine efforts to focus attention on the concerns, which I am sure are shared by all Greater Manchester Members. It is perhaps slightly disappointing that that is not reflected in their attendance today, with one or two honourable exceptions, but the concerns are widespread and genuine and I hope that the Minister will address them in the spirit in which we have raised them, which is that we all want to work together to bring crime levels down and to help people to feel safe in their communities again. The issue is not only that we are far, far away from that situation at the moment. Given the funding crisis that is outlined in the report from the police authority, which we have heard so much about already today, the great danger is that the problem, unless it is tackled by the Government, will continue to get worse, rather than get better. That would be unacceptable to all our constituents.

12.4 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) on securing the debate. I shall not detain hon. Members long, because I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say, but plainly the background to the concerns set out by hon. Members from all parts of the Chamber is the forthcoming financial plan that the Home Office is introducing for the police—as well as what has already happened up to this point. The Home Office said that the police can expect a budget increase of 2.7 per cent. from 2008-09 to 2010-11, but we all know that police costs, as with other public services, run ahead of inflation. That effectively means that, in real terms, the budget, according to the head of finance at the Association of Chief Police Officers—the chief constable of Gloucestershire, Tim Brain—is not just frozen, but is being cut because police costs are projected to increase by more than 3 per cent. a year. That is at a time when council precepts are likely to be capped. We have heard the implications that that has for the Greater Manchester police and, according to the police authority, there are projected budget shortfalls over the years ahead. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities in their submission to the comprehensive spending review—“Sustainable Policing”—that will translate nationally into a funding gap that by 2010-11 could be nearly £1 billion.

The Government will no doubt tell us that that means that police forces must make greater efficiencies and it is absolutely right that this House should
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demand efficiencies and value for money from all public services. The Treasury, in a paper published last year on delivering a step change in police productivity, said that

that is double the level in 2004—and that they would have to be

The Treasury admits that there are pressures in the funding settlement. However, as is the case in many other public services, the lion’s share of the budget for policing is taken up with people costs. In the case of the Greater Manchester police, 86 per cent. of the budget is taken up by those costs. The force made efficiency gains between 2002 and 2005, which resulted in a total of more than £50 million in efficiency savings—£15 million of which was cashable and £34 million of which was non-cashable.

The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities warn that they are

as we have just heard in relation to the GMP. They go on to say that

by the Government—

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