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The focus of today’s debate will be the police funding settlement for 2008-09. However, I am pleased to tell the House that, in the context of a tight financial settlement, we have secured a good and affordable funding settlement for the police service for each of the next three years, building on considerable investment over a sustained period. The gradual move to three-year police funding settlements has been widely welcomed by the police and by police authorities and will enable them to plan more effectively and to think in the longer term.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty: No, I will not. I want to put things into context and I shall then spend a not inconsiderable time giving way, because there are clear local interests. However, I would like to introduce the context first, if I may.

Government grant and central spending on services for the police will have increased by more than 60 per cent.—nearly £4 billion—between 1997-98 and 2010-11. That is a record of which we can be proud. Our investment over the past decade, as well as the significant investment from local taxpayers and the delivery by police forces and authorities of substantial increases in efficiency, has helped to expand local policing, reduce crime and make our communities safer.

Figures published on 24 January show that crime in England and Wales remains stable, according to the British crime survey, and that it has fallen by 9 per cent., according to the police recorded crime statistics. The risk of being a victim of crime, which is 23 per cent., has returned to its lowest level since the survey began in 1981. The police service has responded well to the many and varied demands placed on it. New challenges continue to arise and we must ensure that the service is in the best possible shape to meet them.

The House will know that we see Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s review of policing as an opportunity for wider debate about how best we can consolidate and build on progress and achievements to date, support the police as they meet new challenges and make the most of their collective talents and resources. As part of that process of wider consultation and review, as well as responding to Sir Ronnie’s findings and recommendations, we intend to publish a Green Paper in spring 2008. The purpose is to consult on wider proposals for strengthening the framework that enables and supports the police service and its partners to deliver effectively for the public in the years ahead.

Mr. Robathan: Let me take the Minister back to his comments about proposals being widely welcomed. I attended a meeting the Friday before last at Leicestershire constabulary headquarters. I believe that the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee visited
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in the afternoon because there were two meetings. The police authority and the chief constable told us categorically that, far from welcoming the proposals, they were deeply worried about the cuts that they would have to make in, for example, child abuse investigations. There is already a near freeze on police recruitment. The crime situation in Leicester city is not a happy one and the police are worried that they will have to cut services protecting the public because of the grant. Will the Minister comment on that?

Mr. McNulty: I will. The broader context of the settlement has been welcomed. Some people believed that it would not be as generous as it has been. Chief Constable Matt Baggott and others in Leicestershire are doing a very good job. Casting even the remotest aspersions on them about what they may have to cut is unhelpful.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Forces such as Avon and Somerset are worried about the persistence of the damping mechanism, which means that we never catch up with the needs-based assessment. When will it be possible to fund police forces such as Avon and Somerset at the level that is required?

Mr. McNulty: Let me say, as gently as I can, that the hon. Gentleman’s comments are rather churlish, given that the average increase this year was 2.7 per cent., the floor was set at 2.5 per cent. for those that would lose out from the formula, and Avon and Somerset received 3.5 per cent., putting it in the top category of authorities. However, I take the broader point, however churlishly put, that, having established a formula of need, the sooner we reach the new formula, the better. Having been static, with a narrow range between the ceiling and the floor, we were able this year at least to announce a settlement that had no ceiling. Some progress has therefore been made towards the formula and I hope that, in the coming years, it will continue, if not accelerate somewhat.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I hope that my right hon. Friend will not accuse me of churlishness. As the recipient of a 2.5 per cent. increase, my county has been presented with enormous difficulty. We want to invest in policing. Is he determined to stick to the settlement? It will produce enormous stresses and strains in the policing system in Cheshire.

Mr. McNulty: I would never accuse my hon. Friend of being the least bit churlish. I hope that those matters will be explored further when, this Wednesday or Thursday, I meet the chair and chief constable of Cheshire to discuss their specific problems in much more detail. I hope that they will elaborate on their plans. However, the settlement is broadly welcome.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. McNulty: I balked at allowing hon. Members to intervene straight away because I knew from the last couple of debates on the subject that they naturally wish to consider their own areas. I fully understand that. I got a little way ahead.

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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Mr. McNulty: I said at the start that, given the localised nature of the debate, I wished to be as generous as possible to Back Benchers, and I will be. [Interruption.] I was last year, as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) reminds me. However, it is also my role to get a bit of the context on the record. I will be generous.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The response of the chief constable of Leicestershire was that he welcomed the settlement, but he rightly emphasised that he needed more to fulfil Leicestershire’s ambitious plans.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend about Kent and the letter that he may have received from Mike Fuller, the chief constable. Has that letter had any impact on decisions that the Home Office may need to make about funding formulae? I refer to migration, which Mike Fuller mentioned.

Mr. McNulty: The straightforward answer to my right hon. Friend is no, in the context of the three-year horizon projected by the settlement. Kent and other forces have raised similar matters—Julie Spence, the chief constable of Cambridgeshire, raised the same issue as Mike Fuller in Kent—that, to be fair, do not necessarily go to the notion of migration and criminality being linked. However, there are genuine concerns about increasing levels of population and about how the Government formula allocations can be quite tardy in picking them up. There are discussions across Government about the matter, not least those with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Communities and Local Government about growth areas, the sustainable communities plan and all those directions, although they have not directly impacted upon the issue that my right hon. Friend raised.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Precisely on that point, the problem in Cambridgeshire seems to be the delay. Did I understand the Minister to say that there was no prospect of the demographic gap being filled in the next three years? If so, the situation in Cambridgeshire will become intolerable.

Mr. McNulty: No, that would be—if I can bore people—a rather churlish interpretation of what I said. What we are talking about most directly is the immediate settlement for the forthcoming year, 2008-09. We have said in the broadest terms, to help rather than hinder police authorities, that there is also an indicative three-year settlement, and so have announced what they are likely to get over the subsequent two years. If work on demographic change, particularly sharp demographic change, such as that which I mentioned in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), or other such items intervened in that process and if we got broad agreement after consultation on changing things in that direction, clearly that change could be forthcoming over the next couple of years. I am therefore not saying, “This is three years—all shut. Go away, we’re not having a police grant debate over the next two years, because it’s all settled.”

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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because I, too, want to discuss Cambridgeshire. He has rightly referred to Chief Constable Julie Spence’s remarks about the high levels of immigration into the county. That has nothing to do with suggesting that immigrants are all criminals, as the Minister accepts, but refers to the fact that the cost of dealing with a crime involving immigrants is much higher, in terms of police time and cash to pay interpreters. It was recently announced that some 600 arrests of Lithuanians were made in the county last year, almost all of which involved much more time and cost than would have applied had they been native English speakers. When those representing the Cambridgeshire police authority come to speak to the Minister, as I know they will in two days’ time, will he be able to reassure them that the demographics and the problems of immigration will be addressed before the three-year programme is firmly entrenched? Planning for three years is better than planning for one year, but not if it enshrines a permanent inadequacy in funding levels.

Mr. McNulty: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I cannot give him a complete assurance in that regard, because he is asking me, two days after I announced the numbers for this year and, potentially, for the subsequent two years, again to inject a note of caution or potential change. However, such discussions are taking place across Government, which I hope will feed into the process over the next three years. The hon. Gentleman makes some fair points about population change, but he will know too that we try to use absolutely the latest population data and trend data.

However, there is a view that says that whether we are talking about inward or outward migration—migration within country or from outside country—large shifts in population over short periods have significant ramifications for policing. In part, we keep up with that. The notion that we do not keep up in total, either in terms of police resource allocation or more generally, is a fair point that we should consider. I do not have the immediate answer to that over the three-year horizon, but I take the point and shall say that in terms to Julia and her colleagues when I see them on Wednesday.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman has moved places, but I give way.

Mark Pritchard: The Minister was trying to avoid me. However, I am grateful to him for giving way, and I know that he will want to give an accurate and generous response, rather than a churlish one, given our Harrow days together. Is he aware of the great concern in Shropshire about the Government’s failure to realise that our rural counties face many challenges? Of course there are urban areas in the county too, but many villages are affected by rising crime, so I wonder whether the Government have been urban-centric in their funding settlement.

Mr. McNulty: No, I do not think that I accept that. I should point out to the House that the hon. Gentleman referred to our Harrow days because we happened to
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serve on Harrow council together. It had nothing to do with my schooling. I am sure that no one was in any doubt about that, but I just wanted to make it clear.

The hon. Gentleman will know that policing in Shropshire is first and foremost a matter for the West Mercia police force. I know that West Mercia takes its rural policing responsibilities as seriously as it does its policing of urban areas. As fairly recent events have shown, rural areas and smaller towns in areas such as Shropshire are not immune from serious and violent crime. I shall certainly pass his comments on to the chief constable and the police authority. He will also know, however, that there has been an increase of about 56 per cent. in the budget for the area during the past 10 years.

As I tried to say at the beginning of my speech, I am not saying that everything in the garden is rosy, or that, even after 10 years of investment, everyone has more than sufficient money to use as they choose. I am not saying that at all. As Policing Minister, I would always like to be able to afford to give more money from the centre. I am also keenly aware, however, that there has been a significant increase during the past 10 years, not just in the money from the centre but in the money collected locally. I think that people appreciate that and understand it in terms of policing in their areas.

There are existing pressures on the police and, yes, there is a tightening of the resource base, secured both locally and nationally. On top of all that, everything changes. That is all part of the fascination and fun, if you like, of the world of policing. Policing is now palpably different from how it was five years ago, let alone 10 or 20 years ago, and it has to rush to keep up with the changes in the wider society. We need to prepare the police for that, from a sound and level resource base. Members have raised certain key issues with me, however, and I certainly do not deny them.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It would be churlish of me not to recognise the changes that the Government have made to the rural policing grant as a result of the lobbying of the Minister’s Department. Police forces such as Dyfed-Powys are well advanced in areas such as the civilianisation of the custody service, and they have already made savings in that way. They are therefore finding it more and more difficult to make further savings. Will the Minister give some recognition to those forces that have made a great deal of progress and that are now finding it difficult to make further savings?

Mr. McNulty: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. Equally, I recognise that the sum of all the changes that many forces have made in their own areas is far greater than what each individual force has done. I shall rephrase that, because it has confused me. While Dyfed-Powys has made significant advances in some areas, it has not done some of the things that other forces have done to accrue savings or efficiencies. We need to see more of the kind of progress that we are making through the Quest programme and the work force modernisation programme, which have in part been very successful in terms of the all-Wales solution to protective services. When those efficiencies and
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savings are accrued, part of my job is to ensure that they are not all gobbled back up by the centre. I think that all 43 forces would agree that that is the case, above and beyond what is laid out in the settlement in regard to cashable efficiencies and others. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, however.

We made quite a serious mistake throughout the debate on mergers—which we were halfway through when I took over this role—when we assumed that we were at ground zero and that there had not been any real degree of collaboration or significant cross-force work in the past. There had been, and that should have been recognised. We have now made significant gains in regard to protective services, to the advantage of all the forces and the communities that they serve, since the mergers debate, and since what people are now calling my Valentine’s letter—it was sent on about 14 February 2007—which set out a quite elaborate way of moving forward.

That is a good example of how forces need to make progress in so many different areas as they deal with new challenges, such as the developments in population, while ensuring the efficiency of their core business and also that more areas than in the past go down the civilianised route or share more roles with other public service elements rather than be carried out exclusively by warranted officers. Those are fair points.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Until a few moments ago, the Minister was joined on the Front Bench by the Minister for Local Government, who has responsibility for flood recovery. The Minister will know that, last year, Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, was the very successful gold commander during the severe flooding incident. Even if the police authority puts up our local council tax by the highest amount it can without being capped—4.9 per cent.—it is faced with the prospect of losing 200 officers or 200 staff in the constabulary. That is a real tragedy for my constituents and others elsewhere in Gloucestershire. How does the Minister justify the excellent service of last year being rewarded by such savage cuts in manpower?

Mr. McNulty: In the first instance, that is a matter, as I say, for Tim Brain, but I fully and wholeheartedly endorse what the hon. Gentleman said. I have written to Chief Constable Brain and spoken to him directly about the excellent job he did as gold commander in dealing with the flooding. We were in different places but shared some close to sleepless nights as things developed in one way or another— [Interruption.] I said in different places. He did a fine and superb job in what he would be the first to note, as he looks down his list of responsibilities, is not really a policing responsibility at all. Funding is partly dealt with through what I think is called the Bellwin scheme—the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed to the Minister with responsibility for flooding, who was in his place a few moments ago. As I have said to Gloucestershire and other authorities, if they need to talk to us more directly about funding in that or any other regard, I welcome the prospect of seeing them, as I do all authorities at this time of year. I believe I have seen
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four or five this week, that I saw four or five last week and that I will have the great pleasure of seeing others next week. I hope that these meetings are not an opportunity for the usual shroud waving or shaking a bucket, but about seriously looking into taking full account of the peculiar circumstances of particular police forces. In that context, I would be pleased to see Gloucestershire or other authorities.

Now I have to hum a little tune while I work through my speech, work out what I have already said and what still needs to be said. It is right that there has been an average increase of 2.7 per cent. and a floor of 2.5 per cent. That is part of Gloucester’s difficulties with formula allocation, which was raised earlier, as it is stuck in that position. As I said last year and will again, in the mid-term rather than the immediate horizon for this settlement and the next two years, there should be scope for debating police funding.

Whatever the outcome—I said the same last year—the wide spread of the local precept cannot be right. From memory, I think it goes from something like £88 a year in Northumbria, which makes a contribution of barely 20 per cent. to the overall police budget—I do not challenge that; it is just the way history has made it—up to more than £255 for the Metropolitan police and others in the south-east. In the case of Surrey, nearly 50 per cent. of the local police budget comes from the local contribution. These are or should be—with substantive local and distinct concerns—broadly universal services. Core policing business, for want of a better phrase, should be roughly the same, whether we are talking about Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, Kent or Northumbria. I say that without providing any straightforward answer to the problem of the balance between local and national funding, as I do not have a plan for instant reform of the precept and council tax system in my back pocket. I do say that, collectively, and hopefully on a cross-party basis, we can turn our minds to examining the longer-term financing of policing, which is usually regarded as a universal service.

Mr. Paice: What the Minister has just said sounds perfectly reasonable and most people would support it, but he said the same a year ago. What has happened since then? Has there been any progress?

Mr. McNulty: There has been some progress in the subterranean channels, but none in any public sense. The core of this three-year settlement—certainly the settlement for the forthcoming year—is rooted in the system that currently prevails. I should be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleagues, and to anyone else who is interested in an exercise that may reach a degree of fruition.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): It is just possible that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) was a bit unfair on the Minister. The Minister’s predecessor also said what he said a moment ago.

I welcome what the Minister is saying, and hope that we can all engage in the task that he is describing. Numerous things need to be put right fairly quickly, and we have an opportunity to ensure that that happens.

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