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20 Feb 2008 : Column 111WH—continued

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The reason for my appearance in the debate, Mr. Gale, is that my constituency shares a lengthy border with Cambridgeshire, from St. Neots in the north all the way down the eastern side through Wrestlingworth, Gamlingay, Edworth and Dunton to the Hertfordshire border. The two counties are identical in character. Today, I want to raise some cross-border issues on which Cambridgeshire’s resourcing affects my constituents. Cross-border issues do not always get much time or attention, so, although I do not expect the Minister to answer my points in detail, I feel it important to raise them for communities that often feel caught between two stools. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) for raising the
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issue and my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) for taking the debate forward. Of course, many of the issues that have been raised would be raised in Bedfordshire—the pressures in relation to rural crime and resources—but I do not want to spend too long on them, for obvious reasons.

I want to raise some of the difficulties that are caused by being in a cross-border area. First, postcodes are not always an accurate location finder in a county, because someone who lives in one county may have a postcode that refers to another. In that case, a call centre will sometimes misdirect a call and tell a resident who is waiting for assistance that they have phoned the wrong force, which causes immense frustration and upset. The Alington road industrial estate in Little Barford, which my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) will know well because it is adjacent to his constituency, has had such problems. People have called the police, and it has taken a long time for the force from the right place to be sent. That lack of certainty is an issue for those people.

A second issue is the availability of resources to deal with partnership work on the borders. Naturally, forces with constrained resources will concentrate, first, on the Home Office targets set by the Government, and, secondly, on urban areas or areas of high-volume crime. Rural crime will never be high volume compared with urban areas within or just outside our constituencies, so if resources are tight in Cambridgeshire—my hon. Friends have made it clear they are—how much attention will be given to the cross-border partnership that is necessary to ensure some degree of protection for those who live close to a border between constituency forces? What time and effort can be spent on ensuring that there is more partnership work, that scarce resources are shared, and that when police are not available in one area it will be easy to call another force on the other side of the border, which may have officers available to deal with the problem?

Lastly, I want to raise an issue on behalf of my local National Farmers Union and its chairman Charlie Porter, who has been in touch with me on the impact of crime in some outlying rural areas. Rural constituents in cross-border areas feel not only that they are relegated to minor importance because they live in a low-crime area, but that their location on the border, whether it is the Bedfordshire or the Cambridgeshire side, makes their position even more precarious.

There has been a significant increase in the eastern region in recent months in thefts of metal, because the worldwide price for scrap has gone up very much. There is a travelling community in the eastern region that has in the past been able to pick up on thefts of metal, and there is concern about how those criminals are tracked from whatever source that might be. Again, if resources in the counties are tight, who will put time and effort into cases that cross borders and involve thieves who know what they are doing as they move through an area and how to resist attention, so that they can concentrate on their crime? There are stories of farmers in outlying areas who have been threatened and bullied, or whose wives were told when they put their heads out of the window, “Just get back inside, love. Leave us to do what we are going to do, and no one will get hurt,” when there is no one else in the farmhouse to protect them. People are very frightened.

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I raise those issues on behalf of the cross-border areas, where those pressures exist. I hope that the Minister will take account of cross-border issues when he gets a chance to respond, either today or in writing in due course.

Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): Order. I have the power to limit the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to five minutes each, as the debate is a local one, but I do not propose to do that. However, I would be grateful if both Front-Bench spokesmen were to bear in mind that the Minister will probably need at least 15 minutes to reply.

3.29 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Gale, for that guidance—I shall attempt to stay within those limits.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) on securing this debate and for eloquently setting out the reasons why we expect the Minister to respond positively. The contributions from all parties demonstrate that there is a cross-party consensus on the matter; indeed, if a Labour MP represented the area that we are talking about, I am sure that they would speak in favour of the points that many hon. Members have made.

Clearly, it is an understatement to say that police funding is an important issue. People obviously need their local police to work effectively and efficiently, and for them to provide value for money. However, the bottom line is that if there is not enough money going in, there will not be enough crime-fighting resources at the other end. That is what the debate is about.

I do not profess to be an expert on policing in the area that we are talking about. Hon. Members have made detailed and pertinent points to which the Minister needs to respond, but there are clearly some significant, pertinent issues that are specific to Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, principally those to do with migration. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) also asked where the Government’s tax revenues go. I am sure that the Flanagan review will provide some of the answers regarding additional limited resource from within Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s existing resources, but the outcomes of the review will provide only a small component of Cambridgeshire’s needs. As a number of hon. Members said, there is a declining trend in the number of officers per 100,000 population. I checked with Cambridgeshire police whether there was any good news at their budget meeting on Monday but, of course, there was not, and they are in the same position and are being told that there will be no quick fixes.

As well as facing national challenges such as the issue of police pay and people’s rising expectations of police forces, Cambridgeshire faces the specific challenges to which hon. Members referred. The force has responded positively to the challenge of managing its own resources, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) said, was perhaps of its own making. The latest Audit Commission report shows that it has made a significant improvement in how it manages its affairs while other similar forces’ performance has declined. Hon. Members are worried about what chief constable Julie Spence and the police authority chairman say
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about their ability to do the job. They are the people in the front line; they know what resources they need to do the job; and they are telling the Government that they do not have sufficient resources to do the job properly.

The issue of population growth has been taken up by my hon. Friend and others with Ministers previously. The responses on the necessary changes to funding formulas and the time over which those take place have been somewhat disappointing. I would have thought that, given the Home Secretary’s statement today, we would get a positive response from the Minister. The Green Paper says that the Government

Will the Minister say whether police force funding might be useful for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough? Will he also say whether any assessment of the community infrastructure levy has been made? The Government are of course putting that forward as a way to get additional resources into local communities on the back of local developers’ proposals. That might have a role to play and I hope that the Minister will say that he expects that it will make a contribution.

Other hon. Members have listed significant statistics on the scale of the impact of migration—I do not intend to go over those again. By deploying those statistics, and with their much more detailed and specific knowledge of policing in their areas, hon. Members were able to make a convincing case for the unique situation of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. The debate is not about calling for additional resources across the board to help all police forces up and down the country to meet challenges. Rather, hon. Members have identified some specific challenges in a particular area, to which the Government must respond. It is about hard facts and special circumstances, which are linked particularly to high levels of migration. For that reason, the Minister must respond positively, given the Green Paper’s reference to the “transitional impacts” of migration and the funding that should be made available to manage them. I hope that he will be able to demonstrate that formulas are capable of flexibility, and that they are not always straitjackets.

3.35 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) has done a very effective job of setting out the case for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough: the police force faces challenges associated with population growth and the pressures and costs that a more diverse community can create.

A number of other interesting issues have come out of the debate. I learned this afternoon that Cambridge has the highest number of bicycle thefts in the country, which I had not appreciated before—I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) for telling me that. He also made an effective point on the need to ensure that we have local priorities and that discretion is applied to local forces, and said that top-down targets from the centre cannot possibly reflect the needs and aspirations of local communities.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) made the important point that we should not look at the matter in isolation—there are so many other interconnecting factors, such as economic and social ones, and those related to housing. A cross-cutting approach is necessary if we are to get the right solutions. We are discussing policing this afternoon, but I am well aware of how things such as education are acutely affected by the population growth in the Cambridgeshire area and some of the challenges associated with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) rightly highlighted some of the frustration in rural communities where people feel that their issues are not being properly addressed, which was followed up by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). A lot of rural communities feel and fear a sense of isolation, not only in relation to policing but other services. That message is repeated time after time, but the Government do not appear to have been listening. When I talk to people in rural areas, I find that they feel that their voice is not being heard as clearly as it should.

Some specific points have come out of the debate. Obviously, it is taking place in the context of the Government’s funding settlement and the police grant, which averages 2.7 per cent. throughout the whole country. Cambridgeshire will receive a 3 per cent. increase over the period, but it is clearly a tight financial settlement. In areas such as Cambridgeshire, certain factors draw into question the effectiveness and appropriateness of the current structure. There is the issue of policing needs and the different patterns of offending in migrant populations. That does not mean that there is a higher propensity towards crime in those communities, but that there are different patterns of offending, which might be related to drink driving or the carrying of weapons. Police forces will have to modulate how they respond to those things.

Tom Brake rose—

James Brokenshire: I will not give way because we are tight on time, and I am conscious, Mr. Gale, that you might pick me up on it.

The cost implications for policing have come through very clearly in the debate. I respect a number of the initiatives that have been undertaken in Cambridgeshire. In a positive effort to engage communities and provide community cohesion, a newcomer’s guide to policing and the law has been published. Various other councils in the county are taking steps to ensure that that sense of togetherness and an understanding of common norms and so on are developed and strengthened. I pay tribute to the work being undertaken by so many people.

We must also consider the cost of things such as translation services. We heard of figures showing the increase in costs that Cambridgeshire has had to bear. From the Freedom of Information Act requests that I have made, I know that that is reflected across the country. From 2003-04 to the end of the last financial year, there was an increase of about £9.3 million in the cost of translation and interpreter services. It certainly puts into context the scale of the problems that we are having to face. The Home Secretary spoke today about
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levying charges; tens of millions—I do not know how many tens of millions—are proposed to be raised by the new levy, but clearly that sort of sum could be used up rapidly for such services in policing alone.

Another issue is the lag in population numbers—they are not being picked up effectively under the formula. However, it is important to recognise that the Government have fastened on to the problem. During the police grant debate, the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said:

Those concerns have certainly been amplified during this afternoon’s debate.

The question is how those concerns are to be taken forward, and how those factors are to be addressed and considered. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide an explanation for the recently announced migrant impact forum. Will it advise Ministers on such questions, and what sort of programme and what sort of time scale can we work towards in order to ensure that those factors are properly assessed when considering grant allocations? I understand from the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing that although the budget for the next financial year is now set, the indicative figures for the following two years are still open for discussion and debate, so I hope that that will provide an opportunity for such factors to be addressed.

The final point I raise is that of police numbers. The funding settlement is obviously very tight, as I indicated earlier, and that has led to some concerns about what that might mean for policing numbers. We heard earlier how policing numbers in Cambridgeshire have reduced in any event during preceding years, and what the new settlement might mean. However, the Flanagan report states that

That suggests that we might be looking at more cuts in police numbers; rather than the emphasis being on cutting red tape, as we had thought, we might find that the thin blue line is being cut even further. What will that mean for places such as Cambridgeshire? What does the Minister think is a sustainable level of policing for the county?

Real and genuine concerns have been expressed this afternoon. There will always be winners and losers in any system, however well intended, however well constructed and however well considered; but at a time of real concern over growing levels of violence, with violent crime having doubled in the last 10 years, it is imperative that public safety does not suffer. The public, in Cambridgeshire and elsewhere, should receive the policing that they require and rightly demand.

3.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. I congratulate the hon. Member for Peterborough
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(Mr. Jackson) on securing the debate and thank him for his kind comments—I appreciate what he has said. However, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing does not read the comments made about him.

I start by making what I believe to be an extremely important point. Migration and its effect has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, but no one did so in a derogatory sense. It was mentioned by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), but certainly not in a racist way. We have heard that migration has an adverse impact on crime; it may have an impact on types of crime, but it does not have an impact in that sense. The debate was very good tempered and well measured, and it important to reiterate the fact that no hon. Member here today spoke in a derogatory way.

I assure all hon. Members who have participated in the debate that the Government are aware of the issues with respect to Cambridgeshire. As hon. Members know, I do not necessarily deal with those issues myself, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing is aware of them. As has been said, the Home Secretary met the chief constable of Cambridgeshire and the chair of the police authority in November last year, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing recently met others from Cambridgeshire. I join hon. Members in congratulating the police on their work in the county—I have not heard anyone denigrate their work. We often say such things in order to get our retaliation in first, but everyone has been most complimentary. I will take back all the points that have been made today to my right hon. Friend, and I hope that that will be useful.

I shall answer a couple of specific questions that I will not cover in my later remarks. The hon. Member for Peterborough has mentioned population figures, but he knows that police funding is not based purely on population and that the funding formula takes account of a range of other factors. I note that the ACPO lead on finance, the chief constable of Gloucestershire, has said that the funding assessment was a

and that it was

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I can talk about that point after the debate, but I would be interested to know where he found a 24,000 discrepancy between the ONS figures and the anticipated population figures. The figures that I have for 2008-09 and 2009-10—I appreciate that after then we have only projected increases—show a difference of about 6,000. The ONS figure for 2008-09 was 767,325; Cambridgeshire police’s estimated population was 773,084. As I have said, we can talk about that after the debate.

The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) has discussed 3 per cent. efficiency savings. Police forces are required to make efficiency savings of 3 per cent., but that money does not go back to the centre; it remains with forces, which can use it in whatever way they think appropriate.

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