Previous Section Index Home Page

3 July 2007 : Column 219WH—continued

After establishing demand, the formula considers the capacity of a local authority to generate revenue from council tax, before determining a total allocation for each authority. The allocation is then subject to damping, which I am sure Gloucestershire is feeling a little sensitive about, as it is a process that is right for the country as a whole, but there are winners and losers each year, because it guarantees all local authorities a minimum increase in grant—known as the floor—by scaling back the allocation of authorities above the floor. The advantage
3 July 2007 : Column 220WH
of that system is that all authorities, including Gloucestershire, know that if factors external to them or beyond their control mean that in one year the formula means that the allocation is below the floor, they can rest assured that that will not suddenly result in an enormous drop in funding. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that this is a well-established system, which is necessary to ensure stability in local government finance settlements and avoid large fluctuations that make it even harder for local authorities to plan effectively.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned supported borrowing, which I am told is the local government finance term for a central Government promise to make available a revenue stream to finance borrowing from capital. Like the damping system, supported borrowing is clearly established, and there are regular discussions on it between central Government and local authorities, which gives those with concerns the chance to have their say. We understand that the interaction between damping and supported borrowing can lead to difficulties in some cases, but such difficulties tend to be short term, and the system is fair when considered over a longer period. As I said, we would support both procedures as part of an overall policy. If we moved away from supported borrowing—some local authorities are asking for direct cash payments—responsibility for debt finance would effectively pass to central Government. That cannot be done in a completely cost-neutral way, and central Government would have to remove revenue from the local government finance system. There is, therefore, no win-win option out there for local authorities.

Another specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman was taxi licensing. At present, private hire vehicles—vehicles with fewer than nine passenger seats that are made available for hire with a driver—are exempt from the need to be licensed if they are involved in long-term contracts. As a result, unlicensed operators can be involved in contracts without having gone through criminal record and other checks, which is of particular concern given that they may be involved in transporting vulnerable people and children, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. For public safety reasons, therefore, the Road Safety Act 2006 will repeal that exemption, and we intend that to apply from January 2008. That will level the playing field between licensed and unlicensed operators and save those engaging private hire vehicles from having to make checks themselves.

We recognise, of course, that that will mean extra costs, and that is exactly the type of issue that local authorities should routinely raise with the Department for Communities and Local Government in their annual budget negotiations. Our estimate is that the national cost will be about £1 million, although the hon. Gentleman implied that the cost for Gloucestershire county council would be quite substantial. Perhaps we can bottom that out outside this place, but the effect on Gloucestershire does not seem to be enormous, although he may correct us if we are wrong on that. Like all legislative changes with such an impact, however, the present policy has been carefully considered through the various processes and by means of the regulatory impact assessment. The public safety concerns outweigh the national cost, which will be spread over a number of operators, and I am sure that hon. Members will agree that we need to take measures to ensure the safety of vulnerable and young people.

3 July 2007 : Column 221WH

Mr. Harper: The Minister is outlining very clearly the need for the change introduced by the Act, and I did not suggest that it was not necessary. My point was that local authorities transport children in different ways—in rural areas, the reliance on taxi provision is much higher than in other areas—and that the differential financial impact of the change should therefore be recognised so that the cost does not fall disproportionately on Gloucestershire. I was not suggesting that we should not take the necessary measures; I was thinking of the measure’s financial effect, rather than its rightness.

Kitty Ussher: I am grateful for that clarification, and I urge the hon. Gentleman and his local authority to make that point clearly to the appropriate Department.

To return to the overall level of Gloucestershire’s funding, the grant allocation that each local authority receives is the outcome of a clear process, which is based on an area’s needs and population and on the need to ensure funding stability for local authorities. Gloucestershire receives £164 per head in grant, which our analysis says is exactly the average for shire counties with fire responsibilities. We should also remember that, despite damping, Gloucestershire still received a 3.8 per cent. increase in last year’s grant settlement. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of 2.3 per cent., but that was the allocation for 2006-07; the allocation for 2007-08 is 3.8 per cent. Gloucestershire’s allocation is therefore going up, and the county has received above-average rises for three of the past four years. Given that four-year evidence base, I would perhaps gently question the concept that Gloucestershire is being completely unfairly treated.

The hon. Gentleman also said that Gloucestershire receives a below-average grant generally, compared with the national situation. He is right to argue his case, but he is perhaps not comparing like with like, given the average for similar areas—other shire counties with fire responsibilities. Gloucestershire is apparently just a little £3 per head above the average. We must make sure that we are in the same ball park when discussing these figures.

When talking about funding, we should also remember that Gloucestershire, like the rest of the country, has benefited from substantial investment over the past 10 years. When we launched our first CSR ten years ago, Britain needed modernising—as we all know, it suffered from a historic backlog of under-investment—and standards in public services were well short of what people rightly expected. In the past 10 years, we have successfully addressed that historic backlog, and I am delighted to say that Gloucestershire, like the rest of the country, has seen improvements.

On education, there are 610 more teachers in the county than in 1998, average funding per pupil is up by more than £1,000 in real terms and more than £250 million of capital investment has been allocated to Gloucestershire local education authority since 1998-99. We have talked about the difference between inputs and outputs, and that investment has led to improved results, which is the most important thing. Some 83 per cent. of 11-year-olds now achieve the required standard in English, while 80 per cent. achieve the required standard in maths, compared with 68 per cent and 60 per cent. respectively 10 years ago. That is a direct result of the improvement in public investment.

3 July 2007 : Column 222WH

The hon. Gentleman started by mentioning health, and I congratulate him on saving his own hospital—ours has been saved, although perhaps not as much as one would have initially liked. I was delighted that he said that female life expectancy, in particular, is much increased. That rather makes the point that allocation is made according to need and outcome, although that is in no way to say that Gloucestershire is not deserving. In fact, I am told that Gloucestershire Royal hospital is, as he will know, in the early stages of a £32 million redevelopment, with a new accident and emergency department—Burnley will be jealous—diagnostic and treatment centres, a children’s centre, a coronary care unit and an extended X-ray department. The services that are available will therefore be improved, and I hope that the life expectancy of males and females will rise even faster.

We have also seen investment in transport. The final section of the Gloucester south-west bypass was opened to traffic in May and a new bus and train interchange and parkway scheme is under consideration for Elmbridge Court. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join hon. Members on both sides of the House in celebrating that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned crime. There are now 203 more police officers in Gloucestershire than in 1997, but the important thing is the output: domestic burglary has fallen by more than 28 per cent., robberies have fallen by almost 13 per cent. and theft of and from vehicles has fallen by more than 47 per cent. It is always boring when a politician comes out with statistics, but they make the point that public services are improving as a result of our sustained investment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that the increased police numbers are funded from the precept rather than central Government funding, but I understand—thankfully, this is not my direct area of responsibility—that the issue is subject to negotiation between central Government and local police authorities. It is not as if people have gone off on their own and done something; as far as I understand, what has happened has been done by agreement. If that is wrong, however, we will let him know later.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the level of funding in Gloucestershire, and he is right to do so. We will reflect on the issues that he has raised, but I hope that he will agree that Gloucestershire, like the rest of Britain, has benefited from the increases that have taken place in public spending. Indeed, the grant continues to increase, and I hope that his constituents will be glad of that.

I have one minute remaining and I want to come back to Treasury core areas. Notwithstanding previous improvements, we are not the slightest bit complacent about the need to invest in public services. The end of the current comprehensive spending review process is in sight, and there will be no slowdown in the rate of public service improvements over the CSR period. I hope that that will be of some reassurance not only to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, but to people in other constituencies.

Let me finish by congratulating the hon. Gentleman on raising issues of such importance and by reaffirming my delight at being able to respond to them under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood.

3 July 2007 : Column 223WH

Safer Hastings (Crime Reduction Partnership)

1 pm

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity today to debate the excellence of the Safer Hastings partnership, but also, unfortunately, to raise a concern about a recent decision to reduce the funding for the partnership in-year. The Safer Hastings partnership is the local crime reduction partnership serving the borough of Hastings and St. Leonards, and, in common with other CRPs, it has achieved the Government’s objectives on reducing crime and, importantly, the perception of crime. All that good work has been possible because of the Government’s wisdom, in 1998, in deciding to fund crime reduction partnerships.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is not only in Hastings where there have been advances in combating crime, but that across Sussex generally there has, for instance, been a 55 per cent. drop in the number of burglaries since 1997? In Brighton and Hove, part of which I represent, we now have the sixth lowest burglary rate in the country. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that consistent rates of funding to help that work to continue to combat crime are important, not only in Hastings but across East Sussex and West Sussex?

Michael Jabez Foster: Indeed, my hon. Friend is right. Government investment has meant falling crime rates not just in Hastings but across the nation. However, there is another problem in many places, and that is the rising perception of crime. I know that that perception is not increasing in Brighton and Hastings. Why should that be so? The crime reduction programme, combined with communication initiatives, has meant that the percentage of people who now feel safe walking alone in their neighbourhood, certainly in my area, has gone up to 55 per cent., even at night, and 92 per cent. in the day. The percentage of people who feel safe in the town centre when they are alone at night has gone up to 31 per cent.—an increase of 13 per cent. The equivalent daytime figure has jumped to 95 per cent. That is an excellent record. Indeed, under the community strategy put in place by Hastings borough council, which is set to run until 2013, a target was set that 50 per cent. of people should feel safe at night alone in their neighbourhoods by 2008-09. Already—two years ahead of schedule—the figure is 55 per cent. The importance of a perceived fall in crime rates cannot be underestimated, economically or socially. When people have confidence in the safety of their environment, they are more willing to engage in their communities, and they can go about their daily lives with a more positive attitude.

Perhaps I can explain a little more about how the success that I have described has been achieved. Several streams of funding were provided by Government, and gratefully received. It has been a massive investment. However, an essential stream has been the one known as the safer and stronger communities fund. It relates in particular to the building of safer communities and the combating of antisocial behaviour, and to drug support
3 July 2007 : Column 224WH
partnerships. Those are key components in the fight against crime and the perception of crime, and that is why I am concerned today at the Government decision not just to impose a reduction on the budget, but to impose a reduction in-year, after the budget was fixed.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The problem that my hon. Friend is speaking about has, of course, been imposed across the whole south-east. Funding to my own crime and safety partnership has been cut by £42,000. Does he agree that, apart from the effect of the cut itself, there is an impact from the fact that it has been imposed in-year, with no notice from the Government office for the south-east?

Michael Jabez Foster: My hon. Friend is right. It is that which causes me to raise the concern today. Not only were cuts made; hon. Members were not involved in the process, or even told what was going to happen. They learned only after the event. That is what has been so damaging—it is not just that the amount of cash has been reduced, but that there has been an effect on the well-being of the partnership, and its confidence about what can happen, particularly given the Government’s proud record of giving forward funding in all sorts of other areas.

Examples of what has been done with the funding include the restorative justice scheme for teenagers, which introduces first-time offenders to their victims and takes them on prison visits, highlighting the consequences of their continued actions. Reoffending among those participants has gone down, according to some checks that have been made in my area, to 5 per cent. That is an amazing success story. Another example is the LIFE project, in which fire and rescue personnel, over a five-day course, train offending youngsters in fire-fighting skills, and challenge the reasons for antisocial behaviour. That has proved highly effective in instilling a new sense of personal values.

An aspect of the Safer Hastings partnership’s work on the perception of crime has been its innovative approach in providing a network of 11 community televisions in public places across the town, such as McDonald’s, Tesco and doctors’ surgeries—you cannot get away from it—telling residents that life is much better than they might have thought. That innovative approach has been credited with the achievement of a 20 per cent. increase in the number of people who believe that crime is falling. Of course, that figure should be 100 per cent., because crime is falling, but an increase of 20 per cent. is pretty good.

The community television scheme that I mentioned was showcased in the House of Commons exhibition earlier in the year, when my noble Friend Baroness Scotland, who was at the time a Home Office Minister, and is now the Attorney-General, referred to the scheme as an exemplar, and one that she would want to spread wider. It has been so effective that not only has it achieved ministerial approval: Roger Fisher, the former head of the Home Office fear of crime team said that the Home Office currently views community partnership television as an example of best practice as a method of communicating with the public.

The plaudits for the Safer Hastings partnership and other crime reduction partnerships go on and on. They are a real success story. For example, the Government
3 July 2007 : Column 225WH
Office for the south-east communications conference awarded the SHP the award for best new media initiative, as part of the community partnership television scheme. Just recently the partnership achieved international acclaim as a result of its varied programmes, funded by the Government’s safer communities fund. Hastings has now been recognised by the Italian Association of Language Consultants as one of the best destinations for foreign students. In fact, later this year, in this very place, the managers of the SHP, David Furness and Mike Fagan, will receive an award from the Italian authorities recognising their success in achieving a safe town. To conclude the list of awards, the SHP has been shortlisted for the Tilley Award, which is a prestigious Home Office award for the most intelligent, courageous and effective approaches to the relevant problems.

The reason I have told the House all this is because I want hon. Members to appreciate that the Safer Hastings partnership, and the crime reduction partnerships in my hon. Friends’ constituencies, have been a huge success in helping to achieve the twin objectives of the Government—the right objectives of reducing crime and reducing the perception of crime, which is so debilitating. It is in that context that I am bewildered and puzzled to learn of a cut in funding for the current year, 2007-08. It is not a matter of future plans, but of the here and now—something that happened after the budgets had been fixed. Funding reviews will always need to reassess priorities, but in this case, without any consultation or warning, the funding has been cut after the financial year has begun. I also regret that, as I have mentioned already, Members of Parliament whose constituencies were affected by the cuts were not informed of the decision by the Department. It all came out by rumour; in my case an outraged police inspector called me on the telephone to say, “What is this all about?” Sadly, at the time, I was unable to tell him.

In East Sussex the building safer community’s budget has now been cut by £102,000, or 14 per cent., and the Safer Hastings partnership takes its share of that. Having spoken with SHP officials I understand that that means that this year there will be cuts to initiatives targeted at reducing hate crime, domestic abuse and street crime. That is dreadful. Public reassurance initiatives will also suffer, and that could have a hugely detrimental impact on public confidence in our crime reduction programmes.

I am told that the reason for the changes is that the Home Office needs extra money for prisons and the prevention of terrorism. Obviously, those are both important programmes, especially in light of recent events, but there will always be competing demands, and it is short-sighted to address in that way issues that are priorities for people, namely street crime, local crime and local confidence that they are being dealt with. To do so means simply that many of our objectives, such as not having overcrowded prisons, will be lost if we do not also reduce the crime that leads to people being put in prison.

There might even be a legal impediment to such late notification—I would welcome the Minister’s comments on that—because the deal was done and the grant was agreed, but then withdrawn. I suspect that that is something for local authorities to consider, but the purpose of this debate is to ask the Home Office to reconsider. The decision was clearly made under the old regime, and I invite my hon. Friend to return to his colleagues, including
3 July 2007 : Column 226WH
the new Home Secretary, and ask whether it can be reconsidered. These are relatively small sums of money in the great scheme of things, but the cuts will have an effect on local crime reduction partnerships, both on the programmes that cannot be continued and on the morale of people who will be removed from their posts part-way through the year, after contracts have been entered into.

The Government have made it clear, in their dealings with local authorities, that they will not simply say what next year’s budget will be, but will try to give three-year funding projections. They are the first Government who have ever been prepared to do that, and that decision is to be applauded. In contrast, this in-year cut is contrary to all that the Government say is their intention and to what they are doing in all other respects.

I have corresponded with the Treasury team about this matter, and have here a letter dated 3 May from the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury—now the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—telling me that the budget for the Home Office between 2005-06 and 2007-08 provided £2.1 billion of extra resources, which is equivalent to an average real-terms growth of 2.7 per cent. for the period, so extra money has been provided. He also said in the letter that the Government’s priority is to have a “safe and secure society”, and stated:

Next Section Index Home Page