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10 Jan 2008 : Column 154WH—continued

We went through various difficulties all those years ago when we were looking at restructuring police organisations on at least a sub-regional basis. For all sorts of reasons, however, the issue was lost, and I congratulate the Government on coming to their senses. However, that did not follow through into other aspects
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of the criminal justice system, and we now have a complete mess with probation. I am never sure whether I have a county probation officer, although people sometimes purport to be him. However, they are never around long enough for us to know whether they are fulfilling the functions of that post.

Other issues include the reform of the magistrates system and the Crown Prosecution Service, which has remained largely on a county basis, although the situation is different in urban areas. Every six months in Gloucestershire, we used to have a meeting of the great and the good so that we could at least have a dialogue with people and understand who they were and what they were doing. We were told about some of the really good improvements in the criminal justice system in Gloucestershire, and it is important that we as MPs keep up to speed on such things. That cannot happen now, however, because, in the case of the magistrates courts, we would have to drag people up from Poole, in Dorset. That does not make it easy to encourage the right level of relationships, which is why I have asked my right hon. Friend to look at the impact of such issues on policing.

My final point is a naked grab for some reassurance about the different funding streams that we use to provide our police officers and PCSOs. I have never been greatly persuaded about ring-fencing those sums, although it is good that that is something that has come from central Government. We have received moneys through the crime fighting fund and the neighbourhood fund for PCSOs, and that is fine, but the implication is that eventually that money will have to be raised locally. Perhaps that will not apply to the totality of it, although, then, grants will be lost in the ether when central Government claim they have been paid and local government, or in this case police authorities, say that they have not received them.

Will the Minister explain the Government’s intentions in relation to those different funds? For how long do they intend to provide funding from the centre? That makes a difference in relation to the PCSOs, because even though we do not have several of the budgetary problems that we thought that we might have, there is some likelihood that we shall lose some PCSOs in the next year, because of the way in which budgets will be realigned. That is made more complicated by something else that might be just a Gloucestershire phenomenon—I do not necessarily agree with it, but it is happening. The county council is now funding up to 65 new police officers. Obviously, those who run the county council are not of my political persuasion, but the idea was that every area would have its own county police office. It did not work in that way because, operationally, the chief constable says, “I deploy people if and as I want to.” There are thus several different funding streams, which is fine if they are guaranteed in perpetuity. In reality, that is not likely, and I worry that those streams may end suddenly, and together, which will put us in considerable difficulty.

The public have grown used to seeing more police and PCSOs, which is a great thing. I was told by a county councillor of a different party to mine that despite initial criticism, PCSOs had been a revelation, because of their visibility. I have always argued that there are two distinct aspects to policing: visibility, which matters to many of the public; and activity,
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which is, of course, something different that encompasses solving crimes and so on. We need to create a match between those different things.

I congratulate the Select Committee on its work and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East for chairing it so carefully—and adventurously, in view of this year’s investigation of policing in the 21st century. I look forward to an outbreak of peace on police pay, because that is the great sore. When one talks to the police, it appears that everything else is much more settled than it has been for generations, and the Government should be praised for that. However, the pay issue is a huge barnacle on an otherwise clean vessel.

3.23 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I found the Select Committee report very interesting. Police funding, particularly value for money in relation to the police, is a matter close to the heart of many Londoners, as the Metropolitan police, perhaps more than most police forces, face a particularly challenging crime situation. London is a diverse, busy city with a mobile and ethnically diverse population, so there are many communities with which the police liaise. There has been a growth, too, in recent years in terrorism issues for the police to tackle, and in recent months—tragically, we have already seen it this year—there has been a rise in the number of young victims of crime. Many of us who live in London wonder whether that trend will grow in coming years. We have heard, too, of the bureaucratic challenges that the police face.

The backdrop against which we consider police funding is no doubt challenging, but in my area of London we question value for money from two perspectives—what we put in and how much we can see we are getting. Those are the two key equations. The band D precept for Wandsworth, and the whole of London, was £56 in 1996-97. That was confirmed for me in parliamentary answers in the past month. In the current year, 2007-08, the precept that band D council tax payers across London are paying the Metropolitan police has risen to £224 so there has been a fourfold increase in 10 years.

I have described the increased challenges faced by the police, which suggests that they need more resources, but there is no doubt that investment has been put into different parts of the city to different extents. In Wandsworth, although we have PCSOs, the number of uniformed, warranted officers at borough level directed by the borough commander, is lower, perversely, than it was in the 1996-97 financial year, when my constituents and I were paying £56. We may not believe that we are getting great value for money, but that does not necessarily bear any relation to the massive effort that our local police make to keep our community safe. Understanding what value for money we obtain from our police resources is difficult and challenging.

The difficulty arises in several different areas, one of which is reporting. The British crime survey says that reporting and recording of crime cover perhaps 31 per cent. to 33 per cent. of crime that is committed. If memory serves me right, people’s propensity to report crime to the police relates to about 45 per cent. of crimes The police record 75 per cent. or 78 per cent. of the crime that is reported to them. That is why roughly
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one in three crimes make it into police figures. Inevitably, therefore, we start without as clear a picture of crime as we would wish. The flip side is that even if resources provide value for money, we do not have the full picture, so it is possible that the true value-for-money statistic does not come through in the figures. Perhaps it does, but perhaps it relates to the two thirds of crime that does not make it into the records.

Another challenge in the reporting and recording of crime arises in the attempt to see through the opaque crime record in the British crime survey. The BCS adopts a sensible approach, but it is essentially an attempt at a victimisation survey. It asks people who perhaps would not report a crime about their experience of crime. The survey is increasingly flawed from my perspective as a London MP, given the rise in numbers of young victims of crime. It does not interview people under 16, which creates a danger that it will be less useful to us in time. Additionally, it does not include victims of drug offences, because they are not perceived to be victims. It is difficult to examine value for money in that context.

Finally, the question of local versus national funding is difficult. With the rise of safer neighbourhood teams and panels, which set local priorities, I wonder whether we have a better framework to make links back to the local precepts paid by council tax payers. As a London MP, I am keen on a much closer relationship, with any precept paid to the Mayor for policing in London tied more closely to our local priorities, which the safer neighbourhood panels set for police in each of the London boroughs. I think that we have a chance to link those two things more carefully. It was the lack of a clear formal link that led to our experience in Wandsworth of a quadrupling of precept but not, to our minds, a quadrupling of police resources.

The Minister said that he found the local versus national police resourcing debate interesting. Would he say a little more about how it could develop over the coming months and years, and whether he sees more of a role for local communities, not only in deciding police priorities, but perhaps having a closer tie between the money paid into government and those local priorities?

3.30 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Leicester, East—

Mr. McNulty: Right honourable.

Chris Huhne: I am sorry, I should have said the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz); I stand corrected. I pay tribute to him for calling this debate. I found the Home Affairs Committee report to be thorough and interesting, as was the Government’s response.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words in welcoming me to this area. I am very much an ingénue in home affairs, having the background of an economist. As we all know, economists were invented to make accountants seem interesting. I lay claim to no special expertise. The reputations of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister are well known outside the House, and I approach the subject with some trepidation.

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I agree very much with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Leicester, East on police pay. I realise that the House debated the matter extensively yesterday, but it is hard to deal with the question of police efficiency and funding and the stresses thereon if we do not also touch on the issue of police pay. For us, it is a simple matter. If the Government ask a group of their own employees to give up certain basic rights—rights that are available to other employees—in exchange for a set of arrangements that are meant to deliver 2.6 per cent. against the 1.9 per cent. allowed by the Treasury, the results of arbitration ought properly to be accepted. There will be serious consequences for police forces across the country if they are not.

The report found, quite properly, that police forces have no difficulty in recruitment or retention, partly I suspect because of the extremely specialist nature of their work. However, the three traditional objectives that employers should bear in mind when it comes to pay include not only recruitment and retention but motivation. If one is unable to motivate a professional force because one has behaved unfairly towards it, the consequences can be extremely serious. I therefore join the right hon. Gentleman in calling for the Government to think again. Indeed, when the Minister intervened on the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), there seemed to be at least some sign that the Government were beginning to move on that front—but they may need to move a little further if they are to assuage some of the feelings that now exist among the police.

One indication of the stress that police funding is under is what has happened to the financing of police forces through the council tax—a point mentioned by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East. The figures are striking, with an increase from 11.7 per cent. of total police gross revenue expenditure in 1995-96 to an estimated 21.5 per cent. per cent. in 2005-07. The percentage has nearly doubled, which is a substantial increase. We should remember that the police authorities did not do that lightly, not least because the council tax is an extremely unpopular and regressive form of taxation. We are asking for an increasing proportion of police funding to come from an inequitable and unsatisfactory source. That is a clear measure of the stress on police funding, and I welcome the report’s call for the full assumptions in the police funding settlement to be published. The Minister was not as open in the Government’s response to the Committee’s fourth report on police funding as one might have hoped, particularly as all those matters are open to freedom of information requests. I hope that he will bear that in mind, and make available the full assumptions behind the settlements.

The Committee calls for a renewed effort to establish comprehensive benchmarks for productivity and police efficiency. One of the first bases is the need to understand the different factors that affect the outcome that we want to achieve—a reduction in crime. The Government’s response states:

I am out of date on this matter, but I can remember many years ago seeing work that attempted to model the impact of different factors on crime. One factor
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then regarded as extremely important was the number of young men in the population. That still seems to be the case. It would be helpful for the deliberations of all Members who are interested in the subject if the Minister placed the Home Office research to which the Government refer to in their response in the Library. Indeed, would the Minister tell us a little more about the modelling work that is under way, and whether it has sufficient sophistication to find out a little more about the impact of extra police resources against some of the others factors that have been mentioned? That is obviously crucial if we are to move forward with evidence-based policy.

In a past life, when I used to rush around attempting to assess the riskiness of various public authorities, I had the honour of interviewing Rudy Giuliani when he was mayor of New York. He was already renowned for making a substantial improvement in the crime figures in New York city through the introduction of a dramatically more detailed reporting system of crime at precinct level, and even at a more local level. Outside London, extensive figures are now available for each basic command unit. I understand that figures are available only at ward level in London, but if we are to probe successfully for best practice, and if best practice is to spread from one police force to another, we need substantially detailed information about resources and crime at ward level. Perhaps the Minister could tell us about progress in that direction.

I do not underestimate the difficulties of dealing with subjective factors such as the reassurance of the population and fear of crime. I am far from believing that we can encapsulate all the output or outcomes of successful policing merely in terms of conviction rates and other numbers. However, it is essential that we have detailed numbers if we are to inform the debate and ensure that there is a thorough, ongoing debate on the efficiency of the police and make sure that best practice spreads.

We are all aware that it is a lot easier to achieve a conviction in Dyfed-Powys than on Merseyside, because in the average village in Dyfed-Powys, people know their neighbours and on Merseyside, quite possibly, they do not. In any big urban area, it is much more difficult for the police to find out whether there have been untoward activities in the street. I do not underestimate the differences or the importance of those subjective factors, but the more detailed local data are, the easier it is to benchmark one area against another with similar social characteristics—and the more important and fruitful the process of improving productivity becomes. That was one of the lessons from New York city and the Giuliani episode—I am sure that it is true here as well. The Home Affairs Committee report is right to say that there should be

I hope that Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s report will help in achieving that.

I agree with hon. Members who have mentioned the importance of moving away from bureaucracy towards a greater use of new technology. It is sad, in a world where the use of information technology has moved so fast, that we are still way behind in the police force. What I know about this area is entirely due to my excellent local constabulary in Hampshire under Paul Kernaghan and his excellent senior team. Talking to
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local police officers, the reality is that they note in a notebook the salient details of a particular case, then decant that entirely into a personal computer at the station. It would be enormously beneficial if they could use a single keystroke to get things into a personal digital assistant. There is a programme for rolling out PDAs so that the repetition in the process can be cut down.

It is clear in the report that 42 out of 43 forces are regarded as doing well or adequately, but that none have yet been seen to be doing excellently. If we had more detail, not just locally but perhaps about particular police functions, it would be possible to identify and praise forces that are doing well in particular areas, rather as there are schemes in the local government, for example, for establishing beacon status for particular local authorities that have made a specialism of a given area.

I agree with what was said about moving away from ring-fencing. The Government have, to give them credit, made a commitment on that score in their response to the Home Affairs Committee report. But perhaps the Minister would say more about whether more progress can be made on that front in the next financial year. The Liberal Democrat policy is to try and increase police numbers. We draw particular comfort from the fact that the safer neighbourhood teams in London have been a clear success.

Mr. Ruffley: I do not wish to be churlish, but would the hon. Gentleman clarify his statement that the Liberal Democrats want more police? Does that imply a spending commitment or is he suggesting that more police will be funded from the existing Home Office spending envelope?

Chris Huhne: I am delighted to say that we have a proud record in the Liberal Democrats—I have been personally involved with this, going back to 1992—of ensuring that every manifesto commitment that we make in an election is fully funded.

Mr. McNulty: Rubbish!

Chris Huhne: Indeed, no other party can make that claim, whatever the Minister says. If he would like to put the Labour party’s manifesto through the same process that we invited the Institute for Fiscal Studies and various accountants to apply to ours, I would be delighted. However, there are plenty of quotations from independent experts about our manifesto for the last election showing that that is so—hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Our policy on extra police is predicated on making savings from the identity cards programme. We are therefore making a spending commitment that is offset by reductions in expenditure elsewhere. My party’s policy is not to ensure that we have an overall increase in expenditure or taxation, but to ensure that there is a change in priorities.

The safer neighbourhood teams scheme has had an impact on crime in London. That local visibility is crucial, and we have clear evidence of its success. Again, that highlights the importance of ensuring that we have
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good local data, as well as data dealing with particular functions in the forces, in the ongoing dialogue about improving productivity.

Justine Greening: Can I urge some caution, given the hon. Gentleman’s sweeping statement about the fact that safer neighbourhood teams have been a success? Teams work to different levels of effectiveness in different areas. Certainly, my experience locally is that the teams that are most challenged in working effectively are the ones in the most challenging areas. Often, residents are less willing to get involved in higher crime areas because they are worried about the consequences. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that there are some clear, ongoing issues in respect of safer neighbourhood teams that need to be carefully considered?

Chris Huhne: There is no doubt that we do not strike into sunlit uplands easily. There are ongoing problems, but it is obvious overall that visibility on the street has had an impact—that has come out, too, in international evidence. I hope that the Home Office and those interested in this area and in benchmarking police performance will not merely look at differences within the UK, but will consider international experience. That lesson about visibility, local presence and the involvement of local communities is clear.

That work is ongoing. We welcome the Committee’s call for more work and for the way in which it has focused on key areas where data needs are important. It is crucial that those data are properly provided, if only because, when the Treasury comes to any Department and asks for efficiency savings, a large sigh goes up due to the assumption that that is merely a euphemism for a service cut. Only if we have serious and detailed local data, with a clear understanding of the productivity impact, can we assess whether cuts are matched by efficiency improvements, with genuine improvement in the outcomes that we all hope for, or whether there have been cuts in service delivery. This whole agenda is extremely important.

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