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21 Nov 2007 : Column 175WH—continued

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Mr. Wright: I agree. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should focus more on planned maintenance, as opposed to emergency maintenance, for a range of reasons. It provides greater reassurance to tenants, and is better value for money. If I may, I shall take that away and see what is going on with the emergency repair service.

The work that my right hon. Friend challenged after the March debate has been carried out through the involvement of the Government office in the housing sub-board, a group that was set up to support and advise housing staff as they implement their improvement plans. The board is made up of a chair with experience of working with registered social landlords, a chief housing officer from a neighbouring authority, and representatives from the Government office for the east midlands and the housing inspectorate. The group has instigated a number of initiatives, including a comprehensive service improvement plan. Since the last debate in March, seven meetings of the housing sub-board have been held to measure progress and to challenge the performance of the authority.

The initiatives in the improvement plan include a review of the services provided on housing estates—my hon. Friend rightly mentioned the importance of that—the previously mentioned asset management strategy, and the development of monthly performance clinics. At those clinics, individuals in the housing service are challenged on performance and results are reported back to the sub-board. Throughout the meetings, the board has emphasised the need for the authority to increase the pace of change to improve services for tenants, and will continue intensively to support and challenge them. I understand that a further Audit Commission inspection has now been scheduled for May 2008.

I am conscious of the time, Mr. Atkinson, and do not think I can get through all the points that I want to cover. If my hon. Friend will allow, I will write to her setting out the clear framework that I understand is taking place.

My hon. Friend made an interesting point about homelessness. Northampton has used a homeless prevention fund to stabilise clients at risk of homelessness, and to underpin joint working to help people retain their homes. A proportion of that fund underpins their work with victims of domestic violence, as she rightly pointed out. That sanctuary scheme enables people to make informed choices about their future plans and to feel safe while retaining their family homes if they choose to do so.

Helping people to move through supported housing to independent living has been identified as an area in need of improvement, as my hon. Friend said. The council and its partners are working with my Department’s homelessness directorate and its officials, and will meet on 6 December to finalise the action plan and to formalise the joint working that is necessary to improve the service. The event will look specifically at youth homelessness and clients with mental health and complex needs as those groups are particularly at risk of repeated homelessness. The Department will also share best practice with Northampton.

Ms Keeble: When the Minister considers youth homelessness, will he also consider young women, particularly those who are pregnant?

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Mr. Wright: I take that on board, and will instruct my officials to do so.

I want to comment briefly on my hon. Friend’s point about the request to intervene. As she said, we are on to the third new chief executive, who is providing better organisational capacity and is improving the morale of staff, who are hard working and hard pressed. We must allow time for that to be done. She made an exceptionally fantastic point about the dire need for strategic political leadership. That is not being provided in the council, but I pay tribute to her work as the Member of Parliament for that area to ensure that the strong political leadership that her constituents deserve is provided.

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Dyfed-Powys Police

4.45 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkins, after what has been a marathon day for issues affecting Wales.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): It has been Welsh day in Westminster Hall.

Mark Williams: Indeed, it has been Welsh day in Westminster Hall with debates on Welsh ports, the Barnett formula and now the critical issue of police funding as it affects Dyfed-Powys. I am delighted to have secured this debate as we move towards publication of the policing grant report.

It would be inappropriate to comment on the sudden retirement of the force’s chief constable on Monday evening because investigations are continuing, and I do not propose to go down that route, however much the media might suspect my motives for the debate.

I pay tribute to the continuing success of Dyfed-Powys police in providing a widely respected police presence. It is assessed as performing well in challenging circumstances, and in particular it has established a reputation in UK policing as a leader on child protection issues, and that deserves recognition.

The Minister does not need reminding of the area covered by the force, and the number of Members on the Benches around me indicate that it covers the largest police territory of any force in England and Wales. It covers Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, and other constituencies. That is more than half of Wales’s land mass, and parts of the area are sparsely populated. Despite that challenge, the latest police performance assessment gives Dyfed-Powys police an “excellent” mark in three out of seven categories, and a “good” mark in a further two categories. There is no doubt that the force has a record to be proud of. It is ranked joint 3rd-4th of all forces in England and Wales, and comes top of the family of rural forces. It has the highest detection rate per 1,000 population of any force in the UK, and the lowest crime rate.

One of the force’s excellent marks is for the category of resources and efficiency, in recognition of its impressive work in modernising its work force, ensuring that civilian staff rather than officers handle the more administrative side of the force’s work. Much remains to be done, but the force has made great progress. The force was at the forefront of the move to employ civilians to run custody suites under the management of a custody sergeant, and the local feeling is that that has been successful. Civilian staff at its communication centre are complemented by six officers working in different sectors, in contrast with other forces where a much greater proportion of officers work in call centres.

The force is ahead of the game in many ways. It has engaged in collaborative projects with other Welsh forces, so that, where appropriate, resources can be pooled and efficiency savings made. The four Welsh forces have a formally constituted committee, the Police Authorities of Wales, which provides governance for a range of collaborative activities. On serious and organised crime, and on counter-terrorism, the four
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forces are already sharing information and practices. The Tarian centre is well known for its effective work. The point is that while there may be opportunities for efficiencies in support services, they are limited in comparison with efficiencies that other forces might make, because they have already been made.

In providing the background to the debate, we must not underestimate the huge expense and manpower commitment that the four Welsh forces were forced to undertake following the Government’s abandonment of their plans to merge those forces into one. According to figures provided by the Police Authorities of Wales, when that policy was abandoned in July last year, some 30,000 hours of police officer work had been wasted in preparation, and, according to Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, about £1.5 million was spent in the process. There are other cost pressures on the force. For instance, the Assembly Government’s decision to phase out the rural relief scheme and to replace it with a small business scheme will mean extra costs of some £100,000 for the force.

The Minister will agree that Dyfed-Powys has a remarkably successful history of participating in the fight against serious and organised crime and in counter-terrorism through collaborative work, while keeping its focus fundamentally on good-quality rural policing. The police have done good work on developing their neighbourhood strategies, the problems of which are compounded by the huge challenges of rurality. When I talk to police officers, as I did in my constituency in Aberystwyth on Monday, I hear of the vast distances that neighbourhood police officers have to cover. The fear—the perception on the ground—is that, far from delivering neighbourhood policing more effectively, the police will have to retreat from it.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I concur with my hon. Friend on the police’s work and on neighbourhood beat officers—similar things are developing in my constituency. The one disappointment is that we do not have enough community support officers. They were promised to the force, and people would have more confidence that they could go about their daily lives without fear of interruption if more officers were visible.

Mark Williams: I am grateful for that observation. There are limitations to the kind of services that such officers can provide—in my constituency, they cease work at about 10 o’clock at night—but they can make an immense contribution, particularly to public perception because of their visibility on the streets and lanes of our constituencies. Certainly, there is a perception within the Dyfed-Powys police authority that it was short-changed to the tune of around 15 officers. Approaches were made to the Home Office, which, to its credit, gave more money, but it was not enough and there is still a significant shortfall.

The comprehensive spending review has frozen the Home Office budget in real terms—there is no doubt that there is a tight settlement. If the funding grant were calculated this year as it has been in previous years, the authority would undoubtedly have to make some tough choices. We are arriving at the central reason that I organised this debate, namely, to question
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whether, in the context of such a tight spending round this year, it is the right time for the Government to propose changes to the police funding formula that could remove vital funding lines for rural services for forces such as Dyfed-Powys. A Department for Communities and Local Government consultation proposes folding the rural police grant into a general grant and tapering the floor grant over the CSR period. The authority estimates that, taken together, those things will mean a loss of £6.5 million per annum by the end of the review period, which is equivalent to 150 police officers.

Adam Price: The hon. Gentleman will recall that when the Dyfed-Powys police authority came here to brief the region’s Members, it expressed concern about how the consultations had taken place and the fact that the Welsh police authorities were initially left out. It was also concerned that some of the changes were proposed because data were not available and were not factored into the Welsh figures. That is no fault of the Welsh police authorities, it is simply that there are no statistics.

Mark Williams: We might not be in the same party, but we were at the same meeting and share the same concerns. Dyfed-Powys perceived that it had been marginalised in the process, which is ongoing, and we expect a report fairly soon. Some of the data and criteria for judging those matters are inapplicable to the areas that we aspire to represent.

The authority is concerned at the loss of 150 police officers. Given that the authority has only limited scope to make further efficiency savings, there could be a problem for rural policing in Wales. When the rural policing grant was introduced in the late 1990s, there was cross-party acceptance of the need to recognise additional cost pressures faced by rural forces. Let me assure the Minister that those cost pressures still exist—indeed, because of rising fuel prices, for instance, the pressures are greater still. If the rural policing grant is removed, rural forces, of which Dyfed-Powys is the largest, will find themselves in a dire budgetary position. In all the scenarios presented before the ongoing consultation, Dyfed-Powys would face major deficits.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that it feels almost as if Dyfed-Powys is being punished for having such a good record on keeping crime down? Does he also agree that people who live in sparsely populated areas have every right to expect their service to be maintained, whether in Montgomeryshire or Ceredigion? At the end of the day, their demands are not great, and they have been well satisfied until now, but they are concerned that services will be cut back even from their current levels.

Mark Williams: I use the term “rural entitlement”. Whichever part of Wales we work or live in, we have the same rural entitlement in principle. Frankly, I am fed up with my constituents complaining to me about alleged operational decisions that are forced on Dyfed-Powys police force by the inadequacies of current funding, which, if things continue, will become far worse.

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The floor grant was introduced in recognition of the fact that the current funding formula was unfair and in need of review. If a taper is introduced in the context of such a tight settlement, it will increase the difference between funding for different forces. The exemplar provided in the DCLG document revealed that shire police authorities in England would lose between £4.3 and £10.7 million, which indicates the scale of the loss that Dyfed-Powys would face.

That brings me to the wider point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) about the inadequacies of the consultation with Welsh police authorities. The fact that I must look at exemplars referring to the English shires rather than practice in rural Wales is of great concern. There is a statutory requirement for Government to consult police authorities on any change in formula grant distribution, but copies of the consultation were not sent to Welsh authorities, and the exemplar work excludes Wales. That cannot be right.

When Dyfed-Powys queried the matter with the Home Office, it was told to send submissions directly to the Home Office as opposed to DCLG. Wales has been totally overlooked throughout the process, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that and ensure that it never happens again.

In the face of what are expected to be no better than flat-rate increases for UK police forces overall, expected efficiency targets and substantial cashable efficiency targets, Dyfed-Powys is likely to face significant budgetary pressure. Unless the authority gets increases of more than 4.5 per cent per annum, it predicts that baseline services will be reduced.

The Minister and the Department have in the past acknowledged the need to reform the police formula funding methodology, which I would support. We need a more transparent, open and wholesale review of the process, involving all police authorities in England and Wales. Such a review would look at the accuracy and appropriateness of indicators, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr. It should ensure that the data it uses are available across England and Wales. For instance, the log of bars per hectare measure discriminates against a rural area; why not use a log of bars per 100,000 population? Indicators on economic migration are also inadequate. In my village, just north of Aberystwyth, the population multiplies by five in the summer months. That needs to be factored in.

In previous years, the council tax precept has borne the brunt of budget shortfalls. In 1998, the precept made up 15 per cent. of Dyfed-Powys’s budget; it now makes up 35 per cent. of the funding needed to maintain the force.

Those problems exist without the proposed funding formula changes. I might be repeating myself, but it is critical to ask whether, in the context of such a tight spending review, it is time to scrap the rural policing grant and taper floor support following such minimal and inadequate consultation with Welsh forces.

Dyfed-Powys police authority has told me that the scale and impact of the proposals will be completely
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devastating to the force—a force with such an impressive record. On that sad and sobering note, I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing the debate and on the measured but powerful way in which he made his case, which was extremely helpful. He has some of the other Welsh Members from the area with him, including the hon. Members for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). May I also say how much I welcome the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)? He and I have spent many hours together in various Northern Ireland Committees and on various pieces of Northern Ireland business. I am very pleased that all those hon. Members are present. They are all assiduous in campaigning for their constituents. Whatever the political differences between us, the reason that they are all here this afternoon is to do what they can to ensure that their constituents have the best possible service. I commend them for that, particularly the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

I shall start by setting out the context and the existing situation. Since 1997, the Dyfed-Powys police force, like every other police force in England and Wales, has received substantial and significant increases in Government grant. In the past decade, Dyfed-Powys has seen a 20 per cent. increase in real terms in central Government grant. That is a huge investment in local policing. Dyfed-Powys police force is receiving £51.8 million in general grant this year—an increase of 3.6 per cent. from 2006-07. That is in line with the broadly flat rate increase of 3.6 per cent. for all forces in England and Wales. On top of the general grant, Dyfed-Powys will receive about £13 million from a range of other Government funding.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the product of that significant investment from both central and local resources is clear. On 31 March this year, Dyfed-Powys had 1,177 police officers, compared with 1,005 10 years ago—an increase of 172, which is 17 per cent. The number of support staff had grown from 322 to 594—an increase of 272, which is virtually 85 per cent. All those extra support staff help to release more officers for front-line duties, where we all want to see them. They are also supported by 77 police community support officers.

I very much welcomed the intervention by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. PCSOs will do sterling work not only in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but in constituencies in the rest of the Dyfed-Powys area, the rest of Wales and, indeed, in England. We need to demonstrate continually our support for them. They do a different job from that of police officers, but they do an excellent job, for which I am sure that most of our constituents are very grateful, so I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman intervened on that point.

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