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31 Jan 2007 : Column 256

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the police have expressed fear that although the indicated 2.7 per cent. annual increases would be at or around the level of inflation, they could be less than that. We should therefore question whether it was sensible for the Chancellor to take the Home Office out of the comprehensive spending review at such an early stage and to freeze its budget. That prompts questions about how seriously the Government are taking the security and policing challenges to which the Minister alluded. As my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has made clear, there is a case for putting the Home Office back within the comprehensive spending review to allow a proper assessment of the challenges facing the country, rather than assessing the priorities of other Departments but making a presumption that the Home Office budget is frozen, which does not seem to make sense.

Chris Ruane: Would the hon. Gentleman put those so-called cuts in historical perspective? Is it true that the previous Conservative Government cut the number of police officers by 1,000? Was that cut the result of rising, static or falling policing expenditure? In contrast, in the past 10 years under Labour, an extra 14,000 officers have been provided.

Nick Herbert: No, it is not true that there was a cut in police officers. There was a rise in the number of police officers under the previous Conservative Governments. We are debating whether policing will be sustainably financed going forward. Yes, there has been an increase in police officer and community support officer numbers. We are now seeing that increase not only starting to fall off but numbers being cut. That does not seem to be sustainable or to make sense.

The Government have reneged on promises made as recently as the last general election in relation to police community support officers. There is a serious question that needs to be addressed not just by the Minister but by the Government as a whole, as the Chancellor has effectively made those decisions. Whether that has been a consequence of him playing political games with successive Home Secretaries, or of an error of judgment in freezing the Home Office budget, it does not seem sensible to exclude the Home Office from the comprehensive spending review.

Mr. McNulty: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in the middle of his mildly pathetic political rant. I hope that he will get back to the issue of policing. How can he describe an increase in the neighbourhood policing fund next year of 41 per cent. as a cut? Will he please not seek, however erroneously, to mislead the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are careful about the words that we use in debates. Would the hon. Gentleman care to rephrase his last remarks?

Mr. McNulty: I thought that my use of the word “erroneous” covered that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If it did not, I withdraw the remark.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the neighbourhood policing fund will increase by 41 per cent. next year, and that the “cuts” that he talks about ought to be considered in that context?

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Nick Herbert: The Minister knows perfectly well that I was talking about cuts in promised police community support officers, and there has indeed been a cut in the neighbourhood policing fund, to which I will refer in a moment.

Let us be clear about who has provided the additional resources for extra police officers. In 1996-97, almost 85 per cent. of police forces’ gross revenue expenditure was financed through Government. In 2006-07, the latest year for which figures are available, the proportion is expected to fall to 60 per cent. The amount of police spending financed through council tax has therefore doubled in real terms between 2001 and 2006-07. Council tax now accounts for more than 21 per cent. of police force expenditure finance, compared with 12 per cent. in 2001-02. The Government and Labour Members like to claim that they have recruited additional police officers. They have not recruited additional police officers; council tax payers up and down the country have done so.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I support what the hon. Gentleman says. In the past two years, our previous chief constable went around the whole of Devon and Cornwall imploring people to support an increase in council tax for additional officers and so on. The people responded that that was what they wanted to do. They have given the money, but they have seen all the advances taken away. Some of them are now saying, “We want our money back.”

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. People have paid the increases in council tax, they will pay the increase in council tax this year, and they are entitled to expect the service increases that they were promised as a consequence. One of those was the promise of 24,000 police community support officers in the Government’s manifesto, on which they have reneged. The Government should apologise to people for that.

Mr. McNulty: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Herbert: No, I shall make some progress.

Mr. McNulty: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Council tax does not pay for the police locally; police precept—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but that is not a point of order. [Interruption.] Order. He ought to know better than to try to raise a bogus point of order on what is, in fact, a matter of debate. Hon. Members listened with great courtesy to the Minister, and I suggest that they do the same to the hon. Gentleman who is now addressing the House.

Nick Herbert: Of all the fatuous points that the Minister has made so far, that was one of the most fatuous. Of course the police precept is an element of council tax, and it is absurd to claim otherwise.

The Minister raised the specific issue of the neighbourhood policing fund. I have here a letter sent by the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, when the Minister announced the so-called flexibilities in the fund. He wrote:

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Where has that £70 million gone? It has been cut from the neighbourhood policing fund; if the Minister can tell me where it has gone, I shall be grateful. As for the £35 million that remains, as I told the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), the Home Office has decided to allocate £20 million to the Metropolitan Police Service. That leaves just £15 million to be distributed to forces across England and Wales. The Government like to dress this up as flexibility, but in the words of the president of ACPO,

In the same way, the Government announced changes in the crime fighting fund and said that those amounted to new flexibilities. Actually, “announced” is not the right word, because the Government have signally failed to make that announcement to the House despite repeated requests from Conservative Members. The Association of Police Authorities instructed its members not to obtain any publicity for the change.

As a consequence of this “flexibility”, it is possible that police numbers will fall in the future, something that would have been prevented in the past by the tight operation of the crime fighting fund. Conservative Members welcome flexibility if it is to be used sensibly, for instance to release front-line police officers from administrative tasks that they should not be performing and return them to the beat where the public want to see them. The fear is, however, that as a result of the freezing of the Home Office budget and tight future financial settlements, that will not happen.

Only yesterday, we learnt that police officer numbers had fallen by 173 between March and September last year. The significant element is not that they fell by that small amount, but that this may be the beginning of a worrying trend. As the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association has said,

That echoes concerns expressed by forces and by ACPO.

Mrs. Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. He is being very generous.

In my constituency, Basingstoke, there are only seven front-line police constables on duty at any one time. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that a lack of visible policing is doing little to promote a culture in which antisocial behaviour and fear of crime in the community can be reduced?

Nick Herbert: I do share my hon. Friend’s concern. There is little point in increasing the number of police officers if they are to be tied up with bureaucracy, unable to do what they wish to do and what the public want to see them doing—get out on to the beat to deter and engage with criminals, detect crime, make arrests and so on. Less than a fifth of a police officer’s time is currently spent on the beat. The figures that my hon. Friend gives for a town as large as Basingstoke are remarkable, but I suspect they are replicated throughout the country.

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We, and the Government, should be focusing on how to get resources to the front line, particularly in an environment in which resources will be tight. One thing that the Government should do is take a careful look at the costs of their own administration, and the costs of the central direction that they have imposed on police authorities and the police force. I have been investigating something called the police and crime standards directorate. I do not know whether my hon. Friends know what that is; they may be interested to learn that it is a directorate at the Home Office with 150 staff and an annual budget of £205 million.

I have been looking into what the police and crime standards directorate does. It includes something called a local delivery unit, which costs £0.8 million a year—£0.8 million spent centrally to ensure local delivery. There is a partnership performance and support unit which costs £2.3 million, but there is also a performance and partnership policy unit which costs another £2.3 million. I shall be happy to give way if the Minister would like to tell me the difference between the partnership performance and support unit and the performance and partnership policy unit, and why those units are so important to driving up standards in policing.

There is also something called the performance framework and assessment unit. That costs another £5.3 million. There is something else called the police standards unit, which costs a further £20 million. All that money would have gone quite a long way towards preserving the police community support officers who are being cut from our communities.

The latest document published by the police standards unit is called “Co-ordination of performance assessment and support activity”, and is described as

Such an approach would certainly be welcome and, it could be argued, unusual. Much of the document, which has been sent to bewildered police forces up and down the country, is completely incomprehensible. I decided to read no further than page 6 when I saw the third bullet point:

Is it not time for the Government seriously to review the cost of all the agencies that are seeking to interfere in and direct policing, the proliferation of those agencies, and the overlap between them? A significant sum of money is now being spent at the centre to direct policing. At a time when Home Office budgets are frozen and Ministers appear to have lost the argument with the Treasury about whether that will continue for the next three years, it behoves the Home Office itself to ensure that its own spending is moderated so that resources can reach the front line.

The Government claim that they have cut the number of forms that police officers are having to fill in. They say that they have freed up thousands of police officers, and have made 7,700 forms obsolete across 43 forces. Indeed, they now claim that that number of obsolete forms has risen to 9,000. When I asked the Minister what those forms were, it transpired that the Government kept no record of the information. According to the Police Federation, it is extremely unlikely that anyone
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could establish whether the forms that have been withdrawn were significant, or whether any real savings had been made.

We know, however, that the Government have introduced a very important new form which has reduced the amount of time that police officers are able to spend policing our streets properly. That is the stop form, which takes eight minutes for each officer to complete. In fact, the trend has been not to cut the number of forms and the amount of bureaucracy, but to increase the volume of red tape under which the police are labouring.

When we debated the financial settlement here last year, we were still discussing the potential cost of police force mergers. Since then those mergers have been abandoned, leaving police forces with a bill that has not been met in its entirety by the Home Office. That is another item of expenditure that police forces up and down the country are having to cover. As the chairman of the Sussex police authority has said:

In this context, the Minister has said nothing, albeit I accept that he called for a debate on the future of policing. Perhaps there should have been a debate on how forces are to make arrangements in terms of closing the gap and strengthening their protective services. We will have to return to that issue, because despite the abandonment of mergers, police forces share services not only to reduce costs, but also to make sure that they are able to make significant investments and deal with cross-border crime.

I am surprised that the Minister said that forces were already using resources in, to borrow his words, an entirely efficient and productive way, because that is not the view of the Treasury, which published a document last October explaining that resources would be much tighter than in previous years and that there would have to be efficiencies of double the current level. The Treasury said that work force reform could release

human resources.

As the work force consume 80 per cent. of a police force’s budgets, those are very significant savings to demand from the work force. If we had been having a sensible debate, the Minister could have told us—and police forces—exactly how the Government expect such savings to be made over the next few years so that resources do not have to be cut at the front line. In the absence of the Government offering any explanation of why the figures are justified or how the savings will be achieved, it is inevitable that we pay attention to the fears of those running the forces—the police chiefs and authorities—that those savings will not be achievable, and that as a consequence there will be cuts.

I shall not detain Members much longer, because I know that many of them wish to speak, but let me say a few words in conclusion. Police resources are tight and police stations have been closed, and a judgment must be made as to whether the savings that the Government
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are now asking the police to make will impact on front-line policing. All Members support efficiencies being made and agree that it is right that any public service that has received a large increase in resources should deliver value for money to the taxpayer. Therefore, in respect of my own force in Sussex, when it proposes measures to save up to £10 million a year by 2010 and some of those measures are a good way to save public money—such as to share the £500,000-a-year police helicopter with Kent and Surrey—I hope that my hon. Friends will take them seriously and agree that they are good measures. However, we would react with concern if police forces were to talk about reducing the opening hours of smaller police stations.

The challenge over the next few years will be for forces to deliver savings in a way that improves the service that they give to the public and deals with waste, bureaucracy and inefficiency and does not cut front-line services. The Government have a serious part to play in addressing the bureaucracy that they themselves have created.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has pointed out that the UK now spends proportionately more money on law and order than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, including the United States of America and major European Union members such as France, Germany and Spain. The largest proportion of that money—almost two thirds—is allocated to the police. That has led to an increase in police numbers. The key question will now be whether those numbers are sustainable and whether those officers will appear on the front line. What the public want to see is police officers out of their police stations and on the beats. They want to see the police being properly locally accountable. They want a criminal justice system that functions properly, and which is joined-up so that when the police make arrests and try to bring offenders to justice there is a court system and a prison system that backs them up. The public also want to see swift justice and firm justice, not soft justice as a consequence of cautions replacing convictions that should properly be made in court, and not unenforced antisocial behaviour orders or uncollected fixed penalties. As a Member said, the public have paid their taxes and they are entitled to a return on the investment that they have made. Their tax bills have gone up, and their council tax bills have soared; they are entitled to proper levels of policing in return.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, and that that applies from now on.

2.5 pm

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