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28 Feb 2007 : Column 273WH—continued

There has also been a loss of £70 million that was promised for neighbourhood policing. The Government
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have still not explained exactly where that money has gone. Last week, money that had been top-sliced for amalgamations was apparently being returned to police authorities, but when one examines the figures one sees that it appears that £25 million has been held back by the Government as a result of funding pressures in the Home Office. Those problems are occurring despite the fact that local people have paid considerably more for their policing. For example, the band D precept in Derbyshire has increased by 165 per cent. since the Government came to power.

Against that background, police forces face significant contemporary challenges. As we have heard, those include the need to invest in improving protective services, which are weak in the east midlands, and to respond to the demands of the public for neighbourhood policing and for police officers on the beat. Police forces will have to respond to those challenges.

I have three points to put to the Minister about the issues arising from this situation. First, there has been a substantial increase in resources for the police, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said. Until now, that has allowed the recruitment of additional police officers and PCSOs. All of us welcome that additional recruitment, but I should point out that much of it has been paid for by the local taxpayer through their council tax; their share of the burden of policing has doubled under this Government.

The question is whether the increases have been sustainable. There is concern about the go-stop financing that the Chancellor is now inflicting upon the Home Office. There is also the question of whether it was wise of him to exclude the Home Office from the comprehensive spending review; it has simply been removed from that and told that the money is to be frozen. Given the background of the various challenges that I have described, not to mention the security challenge that faces this country, that matter should be reviewed.

The second issue relates to protective services. We have heard about the encouraging co-operation that is taking place in the east midlands. Such co-operation will be important not only in ensuring that protective services can be developed, given the fact that amalgamations are not going to happen, but in providing a potential source of significant savings, particularly given that the sharing of services will extend into back-room services.

I detect little national impetus on the programme for sharing protective services and sharing services generally. That was the force of the criticism made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). There has been little Government drive towards that aim since the collapse of the mergers—indeed, the Government appear to have been at sea since then. The Minister should update us on how he proposes to drive that both in the east midlands and elsewhere.

My third point is that much of what the police will be asked to do over the next three or four years, against the background of very tight financial settlements, is predicated on forces being able to achieve significant savings as a result of things such as work force modernisation. That is made explicit in the Treasury paper published in December last year, which said that police forces would have to achieve double the current
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levels of cashable efficiencies and that savings of up to £250 million a year could be achieved by forces through, for example, better management of overtime and through other work force modernisation programmes.

Again, I detect little national impetus towards those programmes. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on where the Government have reached on pushing forward the pilots for work force modernisation and on ensuring that the momentum continues, so that police forces are able to make the kind of changes that will ensure that resources are available to meet the budget shortfall and that there can be an investment of police officers on the front line, which is where all of us and the public want to see them.

My fear is that there has not been a national impetus on either of the key questions that I have mentioned: developing the shared protective services agenda; and developing savings through work force modernisation that can result in efficiencies and in the investment of police officers on the streets. Indeed, we need to protect the number of police officers currently on the streets.

If I had to make a prediction, it would not be an optimistic one. My fear is that as a consequence of the relaxation of the crime fighting fund, which the Government stealthily announced—or, rather, did not announce—just before Christmas, and under which police forces can now reduce police officer numbers if they wish, the savings will not be achieved and there will start to be a reduction in police officer numbers. There will not just be the reneging of the pledge on PCSOs; there will also be a reduction in officer numbers. That process has started to happen in some forces, and my judgment is that, unless things change, it will happen over the next few years in forces up and down the country.

That is not just my own judgment; it is reflected by police professionals. Rick Naylor, president of the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, has said:

The Minister, Labour Members and all other hon. Members might like to reflect on something. I suspect that the police are about to experience the same thing as has happened in the national health service. Despite big spending increases and the commitment that the Government have made to those public services, they have reached the position where significant cuts have to be made to balance the books. If that happens to the police, it will be very uncomfortable for the Government.

The solution lies in the Government’s hands. I hope that the Minister will tell us how he will be able to drive forward the agendas of savings and sharing services that can prevent the scenario that I have outlined.

10.48 am

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): This has been a reasonable debate, and I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on securing and opening it.

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I am minded to say that this is almost, like I believe Ernie Bevin once said, “Déj vu all over again.” Two days after I was appointed to my post, I had the great pleasure of attending a debate in Committee Room 14 on police mergers in the east midlands. Many of today’s dramatis personae were present then, and they were making equally erudite, or, in some cases, less than erudite, comments.

We owe it to ourselves and to our police forces, almost as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) was suggesting, to have a temperate debate. Such a debate should not be laden with doom and gloom. It should not be ahistorical or out of context. Massive strides have been made over the past 10 years by our police forces, including those in the east midlands, and that should be recognised. Do difficulties lie ahead? They may do, depending on one’s view. Are there issues to be addressed on funding and finance? There certainly are; I alluded to that in the debate on the police grant report. We owe the public and our police forces a proper discourse on such matters, rather than straying into a sixth form debate, because they are serious. I am not blaming the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), because his points were fair enough. I want to discuss three matters: context, finance and then some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

There may be difficulties ahead for the five east midlands forces. We must look at the context of the past 10 years. There have been huge and significant increases in central Government grant for all those forces over the past 10 years, ranging in cash terms from 40 per cent. to 55 per cent., and in real terms from 10 per cent. to 22 per cent. Interestingly, at the same time—not instead of—there were increases in the precept, and I shall return to that.

As I said during the debate on the police grant report, it cannot be right for the vagaries of history and geography, and past political administrations, both locally and nationally, to dictate police resources, whether funded centrally or locally, in such a disparate way throughout the country. I am not saying that there should not be vagaries because of local conditions and circumstances, but the service is essentially universal and, whether in Cornwall or Cumbria, it should be at approximately the same level. I am not entirely sure that funding per head is—bogus is too strong a word and I am trying to think of a more gentle word, but it is not in my nature—an entirely accurate way of grasping the disparities, and disparities there are, as I said last week.

The funding per population figure is not fair, partly because of the Met, which receives all sorts of funding, as everyone recognises, for national purposes above and beyond local purposes. The national elements should probably be removed from the Met’s pot for a fairer assessment of funding per head in London, so that it is based on local and regional policing rather than national policing. None the less, however crude a measure, it goes to the disparities in funding for what should be a normal service. I do not start from the premise that the funding position is clear. I am not responsible for the Lyons review, but I am told that its report is coming soon—so is Christmas. We have waited a long time for it, and I think it will be instructive when it does come, but that is in the gift of
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my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

This debate and others have prompted questions, and I do not demur from people’s right to put their case for their constituency, local constabulary and so on. That is right and proper, but it should be in the context of funding and the number of officers, which are rising by 12 or 13 per cent. in most cases. Strangely enough, there was no rise in Lincolnshire, and I shall return to the difficulties there with which we are trying to help.

Importantly, next year’s funding for police community support officers and neighbourhood policing will rise by 36 per cent. or more in each and every constabulary. We can debate the point about 24,000 or 16,000 PCSOs, but there has been huge investment this year in neighbourhood police funding and PCSOs, and that will increase by 35 or 36 per cent. next year.

Crucially, today’s policing includes support staff who work with the police, and the number is rising by 32 per cent. in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire and up to 78 per cent. in Northamptonshire, against a backdrop, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said, of a significant reduction in crime throughout all five forces. None the less, issues remain.

I agree with the encrypted assertion of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) that he was told on the quiet that in risk assessment terms the east midlands was in some difficulty with its protective services. That is right, which is why we have provided funding to the tune of £8 million for the east midlands special operations unit. I shall be more than happy to visit it.

Whatever the outcome of the merger debate, it is significant that it has drawn together more readily than would have been the case without that debate the five east midlands forces, which have started talking seriously to each other. I am impressed by the progress in that regard.

I have had considerable discussion, both nationally and locally, with individual forces on taking protective services forward and filling the gap. Last October or November, I sent a letter indicating the Government’s general direction and had a huge meeting of chiefs and chairs, which almost everyone attended in November. On 14 February, I sent out an 11-page missive—it is called my Valentine’s day letter—to all forces explaining broadly where we are and where we need to get to. There have been similarly impressive advances
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throughout the country, not least with the four Welsh forces talking to each other, and considerable appetite, spirit and enthusiasm for the collaboration that, as the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs implied, is necessary to move forward.

As it happens, this debate is timely because, next Monday, in a hotel near Gatwick, which is not a million miles away from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I shall meet the 14 forces that want to take forward the next stage of work force modernisation. Again, he is right in saying that that is crucial to the future of policing.

I return to the underlying point that all hon. Members made about funding. It is important to consider the matter in the context of hugely significant resources and the huge outputs of those resources in terms of crime. It cannot be right that in 2006-07 some people pay £72 in police precept for a band D property while others pay £210 or £220. That disparity in local contributions for what should be a universal service is wrong. Equally, the funding formula was based on each area’s needs in the context of historic funding and taking account of precisely the local vagaries and disparities that make the service other than universal. Essentially, it should be funded on a universal basis. Hon. Members are right to say that we need the funding formula to deliver what it says. I do not apologise for damping and a transitional period to get there. It is interesting that four of the five forces in east midlands lose, but Northamptonshire gains marginally with £600,000 or so.

I want to get to a stage where the funding formula reflects the national part of the contributions. I repeat what I said during the police grant debate that we need a substantive debate on resources, not just on the overall cake. We have got the debate right on the national portion of core funding, let alone additional grants. It is more about how that formula will eventually deliver. There remains a debate about the local tax base specifically for policing and whether there should be a disparity in precept, and equally a disparity in the contribution that that precept makes to the overall budget. In some cases it is barely 20 per cent., but in others, particularly in the south-east, it is more like 50 per cent. Let us have that debate. I am willing to engage with everyone in the east midlands and beyond in that debate in the coming year. I accept that next year and subsequent years will be even more difficult.

I welcome the freshness of the debate, and hope that consensus will emerge on policing and how to finance it in the 21st century.

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MSC Napoli

11 am

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): It is now just over five weeks since the MSC Napoli was beached in Lyme bay, and the incident gained notoriety when scenes of people descending on to Branscombe beach and carrying off the contents of some of the broken containers like an army of worker ants appeared on television. Since then, many people have raised serious questions, not least about why a ship in the Napoli’s condition was ever allowed into British territorial waters, and particularly those opposite the Jurassic and Triassic coast, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Speculation about the reasons for choosing Lyme bay will remain until the Government lay out the sequence of events and the chronology behind the decision-making process. Many of my constituents have asked why the ship could not have been towed to Falmouth or, indeed, France. I have been able to reply only with the information that I have been given, which is that the Secretary of State’s representative for maritime salvage and intervention, Robin Middleton, suggested that the ship might well have broken up had she been towed to Falmouth, France or, indeed, Portland—the chosen destination—rather than beached in Lyme bay. At what point in the rescue operation was it decided to beach the Napoli in Lyme bay? I should be grateful if the Minister would tell me whether any other location was considered at the time.

I am concerned that such an incident should not blight East Devon’s coastline in the future. I am particularly keen, therefore, that the marine accident investigation branch investigation should be thorough and swift. Is the Minister satisfied with the inquiry’s terms of reference?

Will the Minister disclose the level and quality of the environmental advice that the Secretary of State’s representative sought and received before deciding to beach the Napoli at Branscombe? Has he commissioned an environmental impact assessment of the marine environment, and especially Lyme bay’s coral reefs and bird life?

The distressing scenes on the beach, to which I have alluded, would have been avoidable had the police immediately been made the lead response agency. As the Minister knows, only one road leads down to Branscombe beach, and it could have been sealed off straight away. What, therefore, was the quality and level of liaison between Dorset police and the Devon and Cornwall constabulary when it was decided to beach the Napoli at Branscombe? Who did the Minister expect to take the lead on emergency planning—the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or Devon and Cornwall police? Why did the latter take so long to respond to the fears and concerns of Branscombe’s residents?

Will the Minister and the Receiver of Wreck accept that they misunderstood the law relating to property washed up onshore and that that led directly to the disgraceful scenes that we saw on Branscombe beach? What steps are being taken to ensure that the law is clarified, and if necessary updated, to prevent a similar situation in the future? I am not suggesting—heaven forbid—that there should be more laws, because we
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already suffer from too many regulations, but the existing legislation warrants close examination to ensure that scenes such as those that we witnessed are avoided in future.

Will the Minister clarify when the marine White Paper will be published and debated? It has long been promised—I think that it was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—but it is difficult to get any information from any Department or other source on what it will be about. I will be most grateful if the Minister could give us some information on that point.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the members of 771 Squadron at RNAS Culdrose demonstrated their professionalism and heroism in extremely difficult circumstances when they evacuated the Napoli after it had foundered off the Lizard in my constituency? And does he also agree that the Government really need to review whether it is appropriate to privatise a search and rescue service that has demonstrated that it is very much fit for purpose?

Mr. Swire: The behaviour of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is a credit to that organisation, and the issue was raised in the House when the Minister made a statement about the Napoli. I obviously know and fully support the work that is done at Culdrose, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question when he responds to mine.

Will the Minister tell us what impact the marine Bill would have on this incident and what impact marine spatial planning has had on it? Will the Bill specifically address the question of shipping and ship-to-ship transfers in areas such as Lyme bay? In the past, we have had a problem there with ship-to-ship transfers of quite heavy Russian crude, and we have been concerned about the issue for some time. Again, we now need reassurance.

Looking forward and being positive, we need help to get out the message that Branscombe and the surrounding area are open for business—I spend quite a lot of my time there, and I can assure people that they are, as I have said in the House, open for business. Getting that message out would help to restore the day-visitor market and even increase it above normal levels, and we need the press to support and communicate that message. We shall need help in influencing the media if we are to generate income from day visitors in the run-up to Easter.

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