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10 Jan 2008 : Column 148WH—continued

The police are a special case. They are one of only a few types of public service employee who cannot strike, and until now, they have not wanted to do so. With the Government turning their back on their duty of honour,
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the Police Federation has balloted its members on whether it should support a strike. As we heard yesterday, during the past month, Members have been receiving e-mails from constituents and police officers all over the country expressing anger at the Government’s decision. Let us consider one of those boroughs, Harrow—the Minister’s own local police force—where 354 police officers work. They are, of course, all eligible to vote.

It is the principle that infuriates, and the principle directly affects how we consider police funding. Sometimes, it is morally right to act in a certain way. In response to the Northern Rock crisis, the Government found £25 billion of taxpayers’ money. Why put at risk the trust and good will of the police force, which is so important to the running of the country, for the sake of £30 million out of a £9.2 billion Home Office budget?

I listened carefully to the Minister’s speech yesterday to put it in the context of what the Committee said in its report on police funding. I have heard him speak many times and have always found him to be firm, strong and decisive. I count him as a good friend—until recently, I lived in his constituency when I was in London—and I rate him as one of this Government’s best Ministers, but I felt that his argument yesterday lacked the conviction and intellectual robustness that we expect of him. Frankly, I do not believe that making his defence yesterday was his finest hour.

The Government’s case is weakening by the day. During an evidence session, we were told that most of the police forces in the country have budgeted to pay an award of 2.5 per cent., backdated from 1 September 2007. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have continuously defended the Government’s decision by arguing that pay awards must be kept in line with the Government’s targets on inflation—not on police funding, which would have been understandable—yet we heard from the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police that the 2.5 per cent. was in his budget and that he was ready to pay it. The Association of Chief Police Officers described the recommended pay deal as both fair and affordable.

From such evidence, it seems clear that our police forces would not suffer by paying officers the award in full, and the potential effect on inflation seems minimal, especially as the Government have decided to pay PCSOs—who work with officers—and police desk staff the full 2.5 per cent. If I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected by the Minister. He admitted in December that the police are a special case:

How can he defend the indefensible idea that the police should be paid in line with other public sector workers when they are so different?

We explored the issue of the arbitration panel in our arguments with the Minister yesterday, which I shall not repeat. Mention was made of the situation in Scotland, where the award has been paid in full. During an evidence session, the Home Secretary spoke of the savings that would be made by not paying the full award, saying that the amount was equivalent to 800 extra police officers. The Minister confirmed yesterday that the money would not be spent on new police
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officers—the savings made for police officers would not go to new recruits. It reminds me of the terracotta army—a group of people who will not be paid for, do not exist, cannot move and take a very long time to see.

Some 203 Members from all parties have signed early-day motion 512, which calls for the Government to reconsider their decision on police pay. It demonstrates the strength of feeling in the House, and it cannot be ignored. We hear that there will be demonstrations in Westminster on 23 January and in Redditch later in the month, and the Police Federation has mentioned the possibility of judicial review.

A solution to the police pay dispute must be found soon. It threatens to distract attention away from the reforms that the Minister feels are important for the police force and that the Committee has commented on in our report. We want our officers focused on what the Government want them to do, rather than sending us e-mails or demonstrating. That is why the matter is vital.

The public should see the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary meeting the Police Federation, discussing the issues and finding a way forward that results in the award being paid in full. The Government have made a mistake on the issue; their reasons might be clear from the so-called Kershaw memorandum that circulated in local and national newspapers. The new Prime Minister has said clearly that he wants to listen to Parliament. Through the early-day motion and the speeches of the past few weeks, Parliament has made its voice clear. It is time for this Government to listen and pay the police what they deserve.

Several hon. Members rose

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): I call Lembit Öpik, who did not stand. It would be helpful for the Chairman if those who wished to speak indicated it clearly by standing.

2.59 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am sorry, Lady Winterton. My shy and retiring manner prevented me from standing up. I was momentarily paralysed by fear, but I have overcome it now. May I apologise, too, Lady Winterton, for being on duty as a Bill Committee member? I hope that, as I do not wish to put specific questions to the Minister, he will forgive my discourtesy in leaving before the end of the debate.

I have two specific points to make from a Welsh perspective. First, the Dyfed-Powys police force has an excellent record of keeping crime rates down, especially in rural areas. In congratulating the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on his erudite and clear-minded exposition of issues—those issues have been raised with me, too—may I assure him that the problems that he foresees affect the Welsh constabularies as well? My hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and I discussed those matters yesterday, and our concerns were in accord with those that the right hon. Gentleman has just highlighted.

The second specific issue relates to the question of pay. The arguments, which were covered in yesterday’s debate, too, are not really matters of party politics, but
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of basic justice. Either we take seriously the findings of an independent commission on police pay, or we do not. It is certainly not acceptable to go to arbitration, but then to ignore the outcome of that arbitration when the police themselves have agreed to be bound by it. Of course, they would like to receive more than the arbitration indicated, but they were willing to live with the constraints of what that process offered them. It is the Government who have stepped back from a promise that they implicitly made by entering the arbitration process.

The other side of the funding issue, which I suspect is within the Select Committee’s remit, is the terms and conditions of employment for members of the Serious Organised Crime Agency. When I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with SOCA members, they said that they were promised that their salaries and pension would not deteriorate as a result of their helping to set up that very important agency. Subsequently, it seems that the Government have gone back on that. In fact, terms and conditions for SOCA members have got worse, as they are being paid less than they were promised. That is reprehensible, because tackling organised crime is a difficult, dangerous and very important job. We all know that organised crime is a terribly serious and debilitating element of crime as a whole because, by definition, it is organised by some very professional criminals who stop at nothing to protect their interests. People who are on the front line of dealing with some of the most dangerous crimes in the country entered the agency in good faith with regard to the salaries and pensions that they could expect, but the Government have back-pedalled on their promises.

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East plans to take evidence from the agency, and I hope that the Government will listen to the points that have been made by agency representatives. It is unjust that the police as a whole did not receive the arbitrated increase, and that members of the agency, who entered employment on certain terms, have had those terms unilaterally renegotiated by their pay masters. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in the Home Office will contemplate that and right a double wrong, as it is in their gift to do so.

3.3 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to be able to say a few things, because there seems to be a shortage of speakers, and this gives me a second chance to have a go at the Minister—I had a say yesterday in the debate on the police pay settlement. However, I will ask him to update us when he comes to his final remarks.

I have read the letter from the Home Secretary that came out yesterday. I took it to be helpful because it tried to say—as far as I could interpret—that the door is open and that we will be looking to restart negotiations on the structure of police pay. However, after that it was quite difficult to deconstruct its meaning—a bit like the remarks made by the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing yesterday. I need some early guidance because I have just sent the letter to all those lovely police officers who phoned me and sent me e-mails and letters. They will be interpreting that letter, so I hope that the Minister will say how the negotiations can be taken forward.

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The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): Let me be very clear. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is referring to the parameters for the next pay round. One of the confusions that I mentioned yesterday is that the police pay deal arrived so late because of arbitration and everything else, so people assume that it is the first of this year’s round, rather than the last of last year’s round. My right hon. Friend is very clear. If we can use the basis of the arbitration report—the new index—as the way forward, she will be more than happy to talk to the Police Federation about sustained deals, perhaps over two or three years. She will also be more than happy to talk about the commitment from the Government on full funding for the duration of that period. I think that the letter was very helpful.

Mr. Drew: I am pleased to hear that. I always believe that the best way to resolve a dispute is to get round a table and understand what the other side is trying to say. I welcome that intervention and the letter. I will also welcome—when it comes out—the second part of the Booth review. Presumably the work on that has been going on at the same time as the problems that we have been facing.

As I said yesterday—this is the only mention that I will make of it—the problem was going to arise at some time. After the breakdown in negotiations the previous year, it would have been helpful if the Government could have moved their position—I know that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) agrees—because the Police Federation was very willing and able to negotiate on new structures of pay. It was less keen to look at pensions and conditions. It just seems that that was a bit of a lost opportunity. Now we have a great deal of hurt to overcome, and the situation is not as good as it would have been if we had had such negotiations at an earlier stage. What the Minister has said on the back of yesterday’s letter gives us a bit of an open door, rather than one that was apparently slammed in everyone’s faces. I fear that some of us will get the door slammed in our faces when we tell the police about the wonderful things that we are doing for them, so we must move on from that.

Mr. McNulty: My hon. Friend mentioned the second part of Booth. That was published at around the same time—if not on the same day—as the decision on last year’s pay round. That took place on 6 or 7 December, and the recommended pay review body is still out for consultation. I concur absolutely with my hon. Friend in that, pay aside, I have found the Police Federation to be eminently reasonably and willing to discuss—and, if needed, disagree on—a whole range of issues over the past year and a half or two years. I wanted to take the opportunity to put that firmly on record.

Mr. Drew: I thank the Minister and I am sorry that this is becoming a dialogue. Hopefully, it will help to resolve these difficult issues. I am sorry if I have misunderstood the nature of the second part of the Booth review. I thought that the work was still ongoing. If the review is now fully published, I must go back and read it.

It was purely fortuitous that I had a meeting with my chief constable last Friday. Interestingly, he was the same chief constable who appeared before the Home
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Affairs Committee. On that Friday, I had to take evidence from him on the flooding situation in Gloucestershire because he had missed our Committee’s session due to failing to arrive on time. It is interesting that he did not quite get to the Home Affairs Committee on time, either. I now say to him that he should use the train. Perhaps, after that discussion, he will have learned one lesson. What he said to the Committee, and then to me in private about Gloucestershire, were roughly similar. It is always good to hear that we say the same things in private as in public.

It is fair to say that the chief constable was satisfied with the funding situation, although it is tight. One of the few advantages of the non-payment of the full arbitration award is that it has given us an opportunity to use some of the money, although that is not really that advantageous. Policing is better funded than it has been, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) said that the jury is out on value for money. As someone who regularly goes out with the police, however, I have seen enormous improvements, and we should bear it in mind that the police work in an increasingly pressurised world and do a very difficult job.

Let me draw some parallels with what has been said, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will address some of these points. There is an ongoing worry about the fact that every settlement has as its adjunct the demand for efficiency savings; indeed, the two are like apple pie and warm custard. The reality, however, is that there is only so much that we can get out of a stone—sorry about all the analogies. The implication is that savings will be made on back-office costs by introducing much greater co-ordination among different forces, and that is a worry. As I said, I went through the difficulties of the reorganisation mania and I know that it did not help relations. I read the O’Connor recommendations and I am glad that the Government—in the guise of not the Minister’s predecessor, but his predecessor’s predecessor—put the issue of reorganisation to bed and set out the desire to leave the status quo in place.

Why do I raise this issue? I was quite critical of the setting up of separate police authorities because I felt that policing was an important responsibility of local government. In these days of terrorism and major emergencies, there are clearly national priorities alongside the regional and sub-regional priorities, but policing is at its best when people see what the police do. The best line of accountability is through local government, and I have never been a fan of police authorities, which just add to the layers of bureaucracy and the number of committees on which some people sit. In my area, county councillors sit on the police authority, which makes it just another authority. Bizarrely, some people can be working at four different levels of local government, if we include police authorities alongside the other three. Authorities are therefore an unnecessary layer.

None the less, police authorities are in place. They do function and they have increasingly defined their independence over time. Indeed, they do some interesting things. For example, four years ago, Gloucestershire bravely decided to go for a huge increase of more than 50 per cent. in the precept so that it could make progress—
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perhaps it could see the allegation that was coming its way from the Government that it would never be big enough to provide level 2 and 3 policing. None the less, it went for the huge precept increase, which made a big difference to its funding and allowed it to make progress on some of the issues that were becoming its responsibility. That also meant that the balance between the local demand for funding and the central pot was re-skewed.

Those days are gone, however. As the Committee Chairman clearly said, there is now a question of whether police authorities would ever be capped when they had special responsibilities. Gloucestershire has such responsibilities, which include handling our recovery from the flooding. Thankfully, central Government have been very generous—I would like to think that they will continue to be very generous—in making good some of the additional costs involved. However, there are other issues, and such things have an impact on smaller forces such as Gloucestershire. For example, there are issues in relation to police overtime. It was a nice idea that police officers should, like everybody else, give hours of their time, but they were on duty on those occasions. When officers are assigned to be in charge of a water dump for the best part of 24 hours, as has happened, it is pretty fair that we pay them overtime. There are therefore ongoing funding issues, and the Minister might care to make some nice noises about that when and if we make funding requests.

That links to the growth in bureaucracy, form-filling and all the things that go with them. Anything that can be done to get more police officers out doing the things that they do best—meeting the public and working in education and the criminal justice system—rather than sitting filling in forms can only be a good thing. However, such things have been made more difficult by changes in police structures, which was why I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East.

Mr. Ruffley: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in this issue. Does he share my concern about the average time it takes officers to case-build when dealing with fairly straightforward crimes such as shoplifting? In his inquiries, has he witnessed at first hand the panoply of forms that are used, which seem completely pointless to the layman?

Mr. Drew: Yes, I have. Whatever intentions the Government have to clarify things, this is a core area. People will be at their most vulnerable when things are apparently not done properly, and the response is to fill in another form. We just have to get away from that and to be honest about the fact that things will not always be done by the book and that the urgent need for action will mean that people intervene in a certain way. I would be in favour of anything that would cut through the dreadful growth in bureaucracy, including handheld computers—as long as they work and we do not go for some wonderful private finance initiative contract that costs an arm and a leg in the years to come.

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