Previous Section Index Home Page

On police authority specific grants, another issue that has caused concern is protective services. I was strongly opposed to North Wales police force merging with the rest of Wales, because it would result in over-centralisation, but one of the issues identified in the mergers debate—I think that this point was agreed by everybody—was that there was a gap in level 2 funding across the UK. That is certainly the case in my constituency. North Wales police and other police authorities in Wales have submitted plans to the Home Office, and the Minister is considering them in great detail. I urge him to make a decision as soon as possible. In February, the police authority will set its
31 Jan 2007 : Column 281
precept, and I hope that it will discipline itself this year. If the Minister made it known that additional funding would be available over the next few years for level 2 policing, and for port security, it could balance its budget better, and it would have some flexibility.

To conclude, North Wales police is experiencing pressures, largely of its own making—

Chris Ruane: Before my hon. Friend concludes, would he consider suggesting to the Minister that police forces with good records for delivery, like the North Wales police, which has the third or fourth best record on crime in the country, should be rewarded for that good practice?

Albert Owen: I am sure the Minister heard my hon. Friend’s plea, which we have made on previous occasions when delegations from north Wales met the Minister. The Minister should take that consideration on board.

Port security is a priority in my area. I urge the Minister to take it into account, along with level 2 policing. A third factor that the formula does not recognise fully, as I said in an intervention, is the population changes in popular tourist areas such as mine. Small communities with community policing have to deal with double the population and a different type of population in the evening and at night. Will the Minister reflect on that? He said in response to an intervention that tourism was nothing new in the area, but I am proud to tell the House that since 2001 tourism has increased in my area, and the number of people using north-west Wales and other UK destinations has grown significantly over that period. Not everybody is taking advantage of cheap flights abroad. Many are staying in the UK. The formula for police funding does not recognise that fully. I urge the Minister to give extra attention to those three aspects of policing in north Wales—port security, level 2 policing and tourism.

3.26 pm

Mr. McNulty: When Ministers say that we have had a good debate, they often do not mean it, but I do mean it. The debate has given Members the opportunity to air local concerns—I accept that, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, policing is, rightly, a hugely important local issue—and to make more general points about the processes, the formulae and all the other elements of the settlement. In that sense the debate has been good and focused.

The hon. Member for Banbury is also right to say—it is jargon now, and I do not remember when the expression was first coined—that the broader issues of finance and policing in our communities are a process, rather than an event. That seems to apply to most things these days. Although many contributions focused on the specifics of the immediate settlement and its consequences for individual communities, many hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), dealt with the broader picture. I do not blame hon. Members for adopting either approach.

31 Jan 2007 : Column 282

The debate was constructive and represents the start of a wider debate. I do not say that as an abdication of responsibility for the development of public policy on policing. I say that because the subject is important enough for us to have a proper national debate, as I suggested earlier.

Nick Herbert: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister’s flow and I am grateful to him for giving way. I agree with him about the need for further debate, especially in view of the funding constraints over the next few years. When he announced the police authorities grant back in November, he said that the Government would publish a vision for policing and a reform road map by the end of the year. Plainly, that vision and reform agenda are needed. Can he tell the House when he now plans to publish them?

Mr. McNulty: I will, in all candour. We had hoped that the Association of Police Authorities, the Association of Chief Police Officers and Government consultation processes would all be aligned and would be completed by the end of the year, but that was not possible. ACPO is taking considerable time to reflect on these matters, which it is important to do, and will not be ready until April. The position of the APA is similar, though it may not need until April. To engender the debate, the Home Office will set out in February the broad vision and way forward in terms of the components of reform—broadly, what we need more of and what we need less of.

Some of the issues that I have not touched on today but which are important were mentioned by Members—unfairly, in the case of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)—such as the function of the police framework assessment, the police standards unit and other units in the Home Office.

I want to get to a stage whereby, on the back of good performance, the Government, while of course still measuring that performance, step back more and more in terms of inspection, bureaucracy and telling people what to do in a very prescriptive way and let local forces concentrate increasingly on that while we concentrate increasingly on output. The Home Office statement in February will engender a wider debate with colleagues in the APA and ACPO. In terms of reform and vision, I agree with much of the joint ACPO-APA document on sustainable policing; I could sign up to that tomorrow. I have some concerns about their comments on finance and resources, which I am happy to discuss with them, but I think that many would agree with the overall thrust of the document.

I am grateful to many Members who talked about the huge improvements in policing that have taken place and made their comments in that context. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who is not with us at the moment, said that there have been huge improvements in Nottinghamshire although there is a long way to go. He echoed a point made by many other Members: whatever we do of substance in terms of reducing crime and getting more and more police officers on the front line, there is real difficulty in trying to shift the public perception of how safe or otherwise their areas are. The hon. Member for Esher and Walton rightly said that although, compared with many other areas, his area is safe—we may want to put that in inverted commas or contextualise it—that is a
31 Jan 2007 : Column 283
hard message to get across to many of his constituents, who still perceive it as relatively dangerous or crime-ridden. For the record, my borough of Harrow invariably stands at anything from 30th to 33rd in the crime rankings in London, including the City of London, yet it is still very hard to shift people’s perceptions—although things are changing with the introduction of the safer neighbourhood teams. That is not for political reasons, but simply because crime is such an important issue.

Members are right to ascribe to the police the importance that they have in this debate, and I want to dwell on a few of the specific points that have been raised. With the greatest respect, I will not refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), not least because we heard them all last week in the Manchester debate. I took the opportunity to have a little comfort break at that point, because I knew that it was the only break that I was going to get. I apologise to him for my absence. I am sure that his speech was as excellent this week as it was last week.

Several Members on both sides, including hon. Friends from the Thames valley, Kent and Surrey, spoke about a situation that arises particularly in relation to the Met and its surrounding forces and to a lesser extent elsewhere. It is a fair point, but I do not have a piece of paper in my pocket to give an immediate response to it. I am not sure whether transfer payments are the answer. As Ian Blair has said, as much traffic goes the other way. I should think that the Met is, at worst, static in terms of imports and exports. Other Members mentioned Greater Manchester and its influence on Lancashire, Cheshire and other forces. However, the incentives offered by metropolitan forces outside London are not of the same nature as the Met can offer. It is worth exploring further the relationship between metropolitan forces with a larger resource base, relatively speaking, than the county forces surrounding them.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) will be more than happy for my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and the hon. Member for Banbury, to come one, come all for a chat about Thames Valley and its relationship with the Met as regards recruitment and a whole range of other issues. It is certainly a matter worth exploring. By the by, I add to the comments of all Thames valley colleagues about the excellence of chief constable Sara Thornton and all that she is doing in the Thames valley. I wish the authority well.

I am not sure that I would go as far as to say—though I understand why people say it—that this is all about bribes and predatory behaviour and all those other elements. However, I understand why some of my hon. Friends talk in those terms.

As a small aside—it is germane to the points raised by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton and another Member representing Sussex, though I cannot remember who—we are, in tandem with the Department for Transport and through the Boyce-Smith report, looking at the policing of airports and who should pay for it. That relates to some of the points made about terminal 5 at Gatwick and other issues that impact on Surrey as well as Sussex. We will report on that in due course.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton for the way in which he put his case. I have taken into account the point about the peculiarities—
31 Jan 2007 : Column 284
historic, geographic and otherwise—of some of the south-east forces, which requires further detailed consideration. I do not have all the figures to hand but when there have been specific international events at Sandown or elsewhere in Surrey, with unique policing dimensions, sooner or later—on balance and to be fair to the Home Office and Surrey—they have been dealt with. I do not think that the point about proximity to London in that regard means that it has been somehow ill served by the special grant regime. Again, some of the broader points about policing, crime markets and wider points that go beyond recruitment and the whole nexus of London and the surrounding counties, including Essex, were well made. I will try to think positively—I urge everyone to do the same—not just about Surrey’s predicament but about everybody’s position as we go forward into what will be, as I have said in all candour, three quite tight years.

I would say to the hon. Member for Banbury and others who alluded to terrorism that the funding for counter-terrorism has increased fourfold since about 2002—to the best part of £0.5 billion. That is not part of the settlement and does not count as money going directly between forces and the centre. It is a grant put on top, so terrorism should be taken out of the equation. That does not mean that points raised about gaps in protective services at level 2—referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and others—do not exist, but they are starting to be addressed. Quite deliberately, counter-terrorism has been put to one side and needs to be dealt with in a regional, local and national configuration. That is being done.

The hon. Member for Banbury and others raised another important point, which I tried to write down, about continuing demands being made of our police forces in ever-more sophisticated ways in an ever-changing world. That is absolutely the case. We are trying to address those points in an environment in which growth in resources has slowed down. That is the safest way of saying it, rather than the impression of “cut, cut, cut” that has been created by some hon. Members. There has been significant growth over eight or nine years. Yes, the rate is slowing and yes, it causes difficulties, but if all things remain the same and we go forward to the year after next, we should be able to address the issues collectively in all substance. It is not simply the point that 80 per cent. or more of funding is in people: if it is nothing more than 3 per cent., how can the inflation rate be described as very exorbitant?

This issue is also about, to use the jargon, processes, business re-engineering and all the other elements. It is about doing things smarter. It is about more and more civilianisation of custody suites, thus releasing police officers for the front line. It is about, however traduced, doing more on bureaucracy. It is about looking into the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and carrying out a full review of the Act, taking into account all the paperwork and paraphernalia surrounding the process of an arrest all the way through to dispatching people to the courts. That is about to commence. It is about the balance between summary justice, fixed penalty notices and who goes through the courts. That does not apply in a sharp, black-and-white, “That’s a dreadful way to do it; do it this way” manner, but in a serious fashion. It is about IT improvements such as the greater
31 Jan 2007 : Column 285
implementation of Airwave radios and live scan units for fingerprint images. Many exciting, challenging and sophisticated innovations and changes are happening in policing. I therefore believe that many of the efficiencies that we need to continue to secure from policing will come far more readily than would otherwise occur.

Albert Owen: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. McNulty: I will not give way, partly because there are only two minutes left and I promised that I would not speak for that long, and also because I do not have the answers about port policing. I will happily write to my hon. Friend.

I broadly agree with much of what my north Wales colleagues said. They have made the same comments previously. It is important to point out that North Wales receives an extra £7.3 million from the Home Office in special grant to prop up the general grant as well as £1.2 million to cover relocation from South Wales. We are not therefore cutting the money for North Wales police or any other authority in Wales. I have written in terms to the chairman of the North Wales police authority to say so.

Although the subject is emotive and hugely important, the police—from the Fed to the supers to the sergeants to ACPO and the APA—would demand that we dealt with policing calmly, maturely and reflectively, thus according it the importance that our communities do. I commend the report to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


31 Jan 2007 : Column 286

Local Government Finance

3.41 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I beg to move,

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this we may discuss the following:

Mr. Woolas: On 28 November, I announced plans to the House for grant allocation to local authorities in England and, following consultation, I am confirming those plans today.

Before I briefly set out the figures, I should like to remind the House that the Government are now planning local government finances over several years, and that 2007-08 is the second year of a two-year settlement. Later this year, we will announce the first ever three-year settlement for local government.

Our policy on each year’s settlement in a multi-year settlement is to make changes only if exceptional circumstances are revealed by consultation. I shall deal more with consultation shortly. However, in summary, I did not find any exceptional circumstances.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Most local authorities welcome the Government’s move from a two-year to a three-year settlement. However, that makes the basis on which the settlement is struck more important. Some authorities, such as the Wirral—part of which I represent—are protected by the floor that the Government have introduced but are disadvantaged by the failure to phase out the cap on the new formula for social services expenditure. Is the Minister in a position to say that, for the three-year settlement, the damping arrangement will be put to one side and that local authorities, such as the Wirral, will get their full entitlement for social services?

Mr. Woolas: I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point, which he has made forcefully on behalf of his authority and others previously. I understand his point. Two floors operate in distributing the money: the overall floor, which protects councils from sudden decreases in grant, and the floor in two of the three social services funding blocks. The latter exists because of the changes in the formula for 2006-07 and 2007-08. The statement today, as I know my right hon. Friend appreciates, relates to the next financial year. Consultation over the three-year settlement will begin later this year. Obviously, both the policy towards the overall floor and the policy towards damping within the social services block will be given consideration.

I suggest that the House take heed of the important point that my right hon. Friend makes: although there are many benefits from multi-year settlements, such as councils’ ability to know their future finances, there are councils who argue that injustices within the system would be locked in for three years, not one. The debate is therefore an important one.

31 Jan 2007 : Column 287

Mr. Frank Field: From what the Minister has just told the House, am I right to assume that the Government have not yet made up their mind as to whether that dumping arrangement —[Laughter.] Sorry, I meant damping—we feel that we have been dumped on; a Freudian slip if ever there was one. Will that damping arrangement be lifted for the new settlement? If the Government are still making up their mind, will we be informed of that before the Minister announces the three-year settlement, or will we learn of the Government’s mind only when he makes that announcement?

Mr. Woolas: My right hon. Friend is rightly pushing the point—dumping is what the Conservative Government used to do; we do damping. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) says from a sedentary position that I am getting a bit political; I apologise. I know that that is not allowed in this place.

I can refer my right hon. Friend to the statement made in December 2005 and repeated in 2006. We see damping as a permanent part of the system. It would not be right to allow local authorities to have sudden negative changes to their finances. Having said that, we must balance that with the issue of fairness. Having identified a formula for distribution of grant, part of which is based on relative need, the Government must state their view as to what a local authority requires. We intend to consult on the formula distribution, including the damping and the floors, and to make provisional announcements towards the end of the calendar year, subject to consultation over that period. We will confirm decisions at about the same time next year, as we are doing today.

To repeat the point made by my right hon. Friend, the consultation is extremely important for councils and, therefore, for hon. Members, as the settlement will be for three years. As I have said, unless there are exceptional circumstances our policy is to keep the decisions on grant allocation as they are.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con) rose—

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Woolas: Before I give way to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), let me explain to the House why that policy is important.

We are asking local authorities to deliver services, to provide stability in council tax and to pass on the stability that we provide. We are also asking them to make efficiency savings as part of their financial decision making. Obviously, local authorities have a greater capacity to do that over a longer period of financial planning than simply 12 months.

Next Section Index Home Page