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31 Jan 2007 : Column 274

Those extra resources have certainly produced results. There has been a fall in crime and, importantly, a greater police presence on the street, which I am sure that hon. Members would agree is what they want and certainly what the general public want. Clearly, we still have a long way to go before we have a police presence on every corner—not that we ever did—but we are making good progress in the right direction. The introduction of community beat managers has been a major success in putting police where they should be: at the heart of local communities. I can certainly testify, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has also said, that the number of people coming to see me to complain about a lack of police presence has gone down compared with when I entered the House, although we have a long way to go.

The investment must be sustainable and long-term. Budgets need to be planned accordingly. That is key. Finance is gathered not only from central Government, but from the council tax payer. The council tax payer has certainly made a sizeable contribution. In 1996, the police precept on a band D house was £46.21 in north Wales. That has now risen to £166.89. The increase in the police share of council tax has been in excess of 273 per cent. The response from the chief constable of North Wales to this year’s increase—I again stress that it is an increase—has been to claim that his budget has been cut and that 120 jobs will go this year, with further job losses in future years. To head off that situation, he wants council tax payers to pay an increase in the precept of some 12 per cent. A point has been made about the inflation rate in the police force, which he claims to be 6 per cent., although, as has been said, I think that that has now fallen to 5 per cent. However, 80 per cent. of police costs are salary costs, which are running at around the 3 per cent. level. The inflation rate of the remaining 20 per cent. of costs must be staggering.

I am sure that we could all argue about those issues long into the night. I know that I can speak for other colleagues in north Wales when I say that we feel that we have on many occasions. However, there is a more serious issue that arises and that is at the heart of the whole funding debate. It gets to the heart of the problem in north Wales. The Home Office grant provided this year was delivered at the level that North Wales police expected. It was not less than they expected. If we examine the figures from previous years, a similar picture arises. The figures are produced by North Wales police, not by me or the Home Office. In 2004-05, North Wales police anticipated an increase in the grant of between 2.2 and 3 per cent. They got 2.7 per cent, within the expected band. In 2005-06, they anticipated an increase of between 2 and 3 per cent. They got 3.85 per cent., which is considerably above what they were expecting. In 2006-07, they expected an increase of between 2 and 3 per cent. and they got 3.1 per cent. One would be hard pressed to argue that the Home Office has failed to meet the expectations of North Wales police.

If we look at the council tax precept, however, we see a somewhat different picture. Again, the figures are produced by North Wales police. In 2004-05, North Wales police expected an increase in council tax precept of between 23 and 25 per cent. They received 19.4 per cent., which is still a dramatic increase. In 2005-06, they
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expected an increase of between 14 and 16 per cent., but received 4.86 per cent. In 2006-07, they expected to receive between 10.5 and 12 per cent. and received 5.67 per cent. It is clear to me that their expectations from the council tax precept have been wildly unrealistic, not just this year, but in many years in the past. In addition, the Welsh Assembly Government have made it clear in the last few years that they will cap increases that they think are excessive at around the 5 per cent. figure.

Why, we must ask, have North Wales police been producing budgets that they know they do not have the funding to meet? Why have they recruited officers and staff in the knowledge that they do not expect to have the funding to meet their ongoing cost? At best, it is brinkmanship to bring about extra funding, or, at worst, it is mismanagement—it is probably both. Even if North Wales police are doing such things with the best of intentions of receiving extra resources, they are playing with employees—officers and support staff—who are doing a good job for the people of north Wales. Worry about the financial management of North Wales police is also caused by the situation involving the general reserves, which are predicted to fall to 1.4 per cent., which is well below the 5 per cent. guideline figure.

If North Wales police have to examine their expenditure, they will find many areas on which they could cut back. It is important that such cuts do not fall on front-line policing. Cutting support staff is not the answer either, because letting support staff leave only to replace them with front-line officers is neither a sensible nor a cost-effective approach. Again, we are seeing an element of brinkmanship.

I will not go into great detail on how North Wales police could cut back, although I am tempted to do so. However, I will give a few illustrations of where cuts could be made. The publication “Y Glas” is sent to every home in north Wales and has included such vital information as a poem in praise of the chief constable. The latest edition informs us that John Nettles will be filming “Midsomer Murders” in north Wales. Although that is very interesting stuff, the money that funds the publication—some £200,000—could probably be better spent on front-line policing. I am pleased that the police authority has acted on that.

The chief constable wants to take forward mounted police at a cost of about £300,000, although that money could be better spent. The fleet of Mercedes cars has been extended to further grades. The police uniform has been changed to black and now includes a baseball cap. In addition, the force failed to take up the first tranche of money for CSOs, and the chief constable and his colleagues have blogs, which are translated, that have cost more than £4,500 to date. Of course, opinion and research companies have been employed to point out that people are crying out to pay even more council tax than they do at present. There was also a famous inquiry costing £82,000 over a leaked document from the police authority that resulted in members of the police authority being DNA tested. I could go on.

Whatever the arguments and counter-arguments about the present difficulties, we need to maintain front-line policing. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, we need to find a position that is sustainable
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not just now, but in the future. North Wales police have received substantial increases in funding from both central and local government. The funding has produced good results and we need to carry on the work. If the situation is sustainable, we will be able to build on the great success that we have already achieved.

3.3 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Policing is probably one of the most—if not the most—important issues to our constituents. For Cherwell community partnership, which is made up of Cherwell district council and all the other local councils and agencies, making Cherwell a safer place to live is the lead priority.

I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). There is considerable frustration about the number of police officers who train in Thames Valley, but then transfer to the Met. The hon. Lady did not mention the double whammy that because the Met provides those officers with transport costs, they can continue to live in the Thames valley and travel free to the Met area. There is an additional unfairness for parts of the country such as mine because police officers tend to get drawn from places that are perceived to be quieter, such as north Oxfordshire, to areas of high stress, such as Oxford, Slough and Reading.

The hon. Lady, like me and every other Member for the Thames valley, would have received yesterday an e-mail from Sara Thornton, the excellent acting chief constable of Thames Valley police, which said:

The acting chief constable is clearly not alone. It is not like Thames Valley police is somehow out on a limb. Ken Jones, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has said:

In response to the Government’s grant settlement, ACPO expressed concern about the lack of projection for the next financial year and fear that the grant level could be as low as 2.7 per cent. I think that it could be even lower than that because all sorts of pressures on the Home Office, such as the need for prison building and to deal with asylum seekers, could well drive the figure down lower.

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As the head of the ACPO finance committee, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, says:

The Minister said in his speech that he did not want to restrain police authorities by flatlining them, but I genuinely do not understand how, if revenue support for police forces is flatlined over the next few years of the comprehensive spending revenue, we will see anything other than a serious reduction in the number of front-line officers. I predict that when this debate takes place next year, considerably more hon. Members will wish to participate because the cuts on front-line services will have started to bite.

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that front-line staff play an absolutely crucial role not only in combating crime, but in reducing the fear of crime, which is a major concern to residents in Guildford?

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Whether in Guildford, Banbury or Bicester, the fear of crime is best dealt with if people are confident that there will be police officers out on the streets.

An article in The Observer on 14 January with the headline “Police funding crisis ‘will put public at risk’” said that the Police Federation, which represents Britain’s police officers,

That concern is shared by the acting chief constable of Thames Valley police, chief police officers across the country and rank and file police officers, as represented by the Police Federation. Ministers must confront the Treasury and make it clear that if they do not receive a year-on-year increase in funding there will be a cut in front-line funding. The Minister said that police forces must become more efficient, but funding has flatlined and police forces have to cope with ever increasing demands. For example, the witness protection provision of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 came into force in April 2006, and administrative support is required to manage the scheme. The nature of major crime is constantly changing, and police forces have to apply the national intelligence model, and are engaged in counter-terrorism initiatives. Alternative criminal tactics require additional resilience and resources. More work is done in organised crime units, and the Thames Valley force requires a new team of appropriately vetted and highly professional intelligence practitioners to set up a confidential unit.

There are ongoing demands on police forces, which are ever more sophisticated in their response to major crime, specialist crime and, as we have heard, the increased terrorist threat. I fully endorse and support what my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said. Our complaint is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a serious error of judgment when he decided early this year to freeze the Home Office budget until 2011. He effectively announced that
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policing and security were not a priority, creating considerable difficulties for the police. This year, there has been an increase in the Thames Valley police budget of 4.62 per cent. If the budget is to stand still, next year a 5.94 per cent. increase is required and a 4.3 per cent. increase is required in 2009. Something must therefore give, and I suspect that it will be front-line policing and PCSO provision, on which a promise was made but never quite delivered. The 2005 Labour manifesto pledged to deliver more than 24,000 PCSOs, but no sooner was the print dry than the Home Office reneged on its word, and reduced the national number to 16,000 without adequate explanation.

In the Thames Valley, 675 PCSOs were originally promised but, in fact, 417 will be recruited, so there is a shortfall of 258. Even worse, district and parish councils are increasingly told that if they want PCSOs they must provide match funding. In effect, they must pay for PCSOs twice, through the police grant and through the district council or parish precept, even though the amount of funding for the police from council tax has increased substantially. In 1996-97, almost 85 per cent. of police force revenue was financed directly by the Government, but that percentage has fallen substantially, and it is about to go down to 60 per cent. in 2006-07. Council tax accounts for 21 per cent. of police funding—up from 12 per cent. in 2001-02—so a stealth tax has been levied, as more and more burdens are imposed on local people and the amount of money paid by the Treasury and central Government has decreased.

The Minister kindly said that he would meet the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—I hope that he will extend that invitation to me, as I represent an Oxfordshire constituency—to discuss funding for the Thames Valley force. He suggested that he wanted to engage in a process. This is an extremely important subject, and we all want to engage in the process of trying to ensure that over the next two or three years our police forces are properly funded without cutting the number of front-line police officers.

3.14 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Police funding in the past 15 years has gone through a number of different phases. It has gone from famine under the Conservative Administration to a feast in recent years. Every feast is always followed by a diet, and we are in that position now, as people have to tighten their belts and manage their budgets more responsibly.

In the past 10 years, the performance of North Wales police has improved considerably, and the force’s detection rates have increased faster in the past four to five years than those of many other areas. The north-west Wales division, which covers my constituency of Ynys Môn, is one of the best performing divisions in the United Kingdom. Like many hon. Members, I have regular meetings with the chief superintendent and local inspectors, who point to advances in community policing such as the neighbourhood policing teams that have won the trust of the community—something that has been missing for many years. The Government have an excellent record of funding community policing. In 1996, there were no community support officers at all, but in north Wales, we now have 58 CSOs—a figure that will rise to 240.

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PCSOs have made a real difference. North Wales police missed out on the first tranche of funding, because the chief constable suggested PCSOs could not do the job that he wanted them to do. That is certainly not the case, and he has changed his mind, but we have lost out on valuable Home Office money. That money was left unclaimed, but there are complaints now that that there is insufficient money from the Home Office. Good police performance in north-west Wales is the result of the dedication of police officers and, indeed, civilian staff, accompanied by steady increases in Government funding. In north Wales this year, and in 2007-08, there will be a rise in grant of 3.6 per cent., and the area has received a real-terms increase of 33 per cent. since 1997.

In addition to the increase in central funding, there have been massive increases in the council tax precept: there has been a 53 per cent. increase over the past three years, and a staggering 100 per cent. increase in the past five years. Such increases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, are not sustainable and, indeed, are unacceptable. Police numbers in my area have increased by 18 per cent. compared with the UK average of 11 per cent. since 1997, and we have 1,600 police on our streets. In that period, the number of civilian staff doubled to 997. In the comprehensive spending review, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned, the Chancellor made it clear that the Home Office would receive flat-rate increases between 2009 and 2011. It was known well in advance that an average increase of 3.6 per cent. in the general grant would be awarded in 2007-08, yet when it was delivered the police claimed that the Home Office had cut their budget. The general grant increase is worth £2.6 million while total funding is £76.3 million. The police have secured extra revenue from council tax, but resources still do not meet its expectations. Indeed, the police are still considering increasing council tax by between 7 and 10 per cent. per annum. The Welsh Assembly Government have indicated that they would cap increases at 5 per cent. There has been poor budget planning by North Wales police during a period in which there were sufficient funds coming from the Home Office. North Wales police has made some controversial management decisions, some of which were referred to by my hon. Friend.

In an intervention, the Minister mentioned that he launched the St. Asaph call centre, but I can tell him that the call centre is not working. There are insufficient numbers of front-line staff answering calls, and the centralisation that has taken place in North Wales police has come at the expense of moving experienced and knowledgeable people from different parts of the division to a central call centre. It is a white elephant, and it is sucking front-line staff into it to plug gaps.

Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend agree that the amount that North Wales police has spent on IT is very high, compared with the amount spent by other forces?

Albert Owen: Indeed. North Wales received specific grants from the Home Office, which it spent well, and that has worked, but the call centre is not working because of the lack of knowledge of the region that it
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is supposed to represent. Council tax payers have paid for extra policing. Indeed, when the police authority proposed the rises, people were told that they were getting a 10p bobby. They have paid for extra local policing, but the chief constable is now making alarmist statements in the press, saying that he will cut the number of front-line staff—staff for whom people have already paid—if he does not get more money from the Home Office. I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said: the authority is getting extra money from the Home Office, year on year, and is not facing a cut, as has been suggested.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): My constituents in Wrexham, north Wales, tell me that they strongly think that a 5 per cent. limit, in relation to council tax increases, is, if anything, too high. Does that agree with the views expressed by my hon. Friend’s constituents, and do they feel that the projected increase of 10 to 12 per cent. would be way beyond their means?

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all know that in the 2005 general election, council tax was the big issue. The Welsh Assembly Government have asked local authorities and police authorities to bear that in mind, and to consider inflation, which is at some 3 per cent., when setting the precept. I know that that is the case in England, too.

My hon. Friend the Minister has met me on a number of occasions to discuss a north Wales issue that is specific to my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson)—port security. The arrangement for funding port security is not clear, and the system was changed in 2006-07 to reflect a new method of payment to the police authority. I talked to the police authority spokesman only yesterday, and it is still unclear how much money is dedicated to port security. The Minister will know that port security is high on the agenda, not just in my area but throughout the United Kingdom. Can he say exactly how much money will be allocated and when, so that we can use it properly in the port?

Failure to secure extra funding for the port will mean one of two things: either we cut the police presence alongside immigration officers, or we take front-line police officers from the street and put them in the port areas. My constituency has the third heaviest port traffic in the United Kingdom. On average, the number of lorries and the amount of heavy freight is increasing by 2 to 3 per cent. a year, so the amount of traffic flow through the port to the Republic of Ireland and back is increasing. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear that in mind.

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