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If an officer can write down their report on a hand-held computer when they are on the scene, it will be more accurate than if they do so when they return to the police station. We have several distinguished silks in the Chamber today, who will be used to police officers reading out from their notebooks in court. Probably the first question that they ask is, “When did you make up
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your notes?” If an officer has a hand-held computer at the scene of an incident, they can immediately make up their notes on the spot and check so much more information—who owns the car, whether it is stolen and all that kind of stuff.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me to my final point, which concerns the number of laws that we pass in this place and the burden that we place on the police, including the police in Lincolnshire. Another great statistic produced by Sir Ronnie Flanagan is that stop and search results in 48,000 hours of police time spent meeting targets and ensuring that, for every stop and search carried out, certain forms are filled in that eventually find their way into the Home Office somewhere. Obviously it is important that there should be recording of certain activities and events, but I am not sure whether we should record every event in the way that we have in the past.

The situation in Lincolnshire is probably different from that in other parts of the country, because it is up to the police authority and the chief constable to decide on certain issues. Certain chief constables have said that there is no need to fill in certain forms. Others have felt that they are obliged to follow everything that the Home Office says. It is important that we should have one practice throughout the country. However, this is not a plea for central control, and it will not save Lincolnshire tonight, because it seems that the Opposition will not vote against the Government, even though the Opposition spokesman is very cross at what they are doing.

There is more that we can do. I urge the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who I know listens and takes on good practice as much as he can, to see whether any good practice can be rolled out in other authorities, so that we do not find next year that other police authorities like Leicestershire are subject to a cap. If that sounds like an early plea for Leicestershire, it is. I have not dwelt on Leicestershire, in view of your strictures at the start of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope very much that the Minister will take what I have said into account when he makes any decisions in the future.

5.43 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): This rare usage of the central check on council tax goes to show, with more significance than ever before, the severe lack of funding for police authorities, which has left Lincolnshire police authority with no conceivable choice but to use its council tax precepts to try to improve its service. The decision is embarrassingly last-minute and will cause huge disruption to the police service planning to use those funds. Furthermore, the administrative costs of changing the council tax increase will be disproportionate to the benefits that it will reap. Indeed, the Minister has already told us the colossal cost of changing the plan.

This situation has come about because the tight police funding settlement has left police authorities with relatively little choice. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), a great deal of work has to be done, and that is increasing all the time because we pass too many laws in this place. Unsurprisingly, it therefore follows that certain police authorities, including Lincolnshire, feel obliged to make substantial increases in the council tax demand in order to achieve their goal.

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The 2008-09 settlement was the tightest for many years, with a 2.7 per cent. grant increase. It will be 2.8 per cent. in 2009-10 and 2010-11. That is effectively a real-terms freeze, or perhaps a contracting budget if inflation does as we fear it will. The needs formula is obviously seriously flawed, and some areas are already missing out on additional grant resources that the formula itself says they need. This will simply exacerbate the existing problems.

The police authorities are forced to make up the shortfalls through the council tax—they have no other way of doing it. Yet again, the Government’s spending squeeze has pushed the responsibility on to police authorities, yet the Government are blaming them for shortfalls created by underfunding from central Government. That is the paradox. A police authority can find itself being capped for trying to achieve the income that it needs to fulfil the targets that it has been set by the Government. That is why so many people are angry about this, and it goes some way towards illustrating the frustration that the police authorities unquestionably feel at having to cut back on plans that were, after all, designed to improve public safety.

This will have an impact on police services on the ground. In Lincolnshire, Chief Constable Richard Crompton has vowed to maintain his staff at its current level. He has said, however, that plans to employ 100 additional officers and police community support officers—which he claims would have made a real difference to people living in Lincolnshire—will be abandoned. He had wanted to increase the number of officers monitoring serious offenders, including sex offenders, but that will now have to be put on ice indefinitely because the police authority does not have the necessary money.

This is also bad for police service planning. How can authorities be expected to plan their services and ensure that they can adequately protect their local community when the Government move the goalposts at the last minute? As I have said, the administrative costs involved are quite significant, but the principle behind the action conspires with the logistical problems to create administrative chaos as well as political contradiction. For example, some people who already pay by standing order will have no time to make the necessary change and could find themselves in arrears. We have already discussed the content of the funding formula. Incidentally, most council tax rises are above 5 per cent. if precepts are included. So there is a practical problem, and also one of principle.

I was rather surprised by the comments made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He is a tremendously nice chap, but he seemed to be highlighting a contradiction in the Conservative party’s position. He said that this mess was a direct result of Government policy and that it seemed pretty clear that the lateral grants system was not working. He also said that the Government had created that situation. I agree with his criticisms, but we need to remember that it was none other than the Conservative Government who capped Lincolnshire police authority in 1995, in exactly the same way as the present Government are doing. I do not really understand how there can be political consistency in condemning the Minister and
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his Government today for doing something that the hon. Gentleman’s party did 13 years ago—unlucky for some.

Robert Neill: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take on board the fact that I quite deliberately said that the capping regime had passed its usefulness, and that the circumstances that applied in local government back in the 1980s were rather different from those that apply now. Perhaps he would also acknowledge that the Conservatives have a coherent policy, because we would abolish the capping regime and replace it with a democratic vote by putting excessive council tax rises to the electorate by way of a referendum. If the hon. Gentleman is keen on local democracy, perhaps he would like to endorse that proposal.

Lembit Öpik: I simply do not understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that that intervention—eloquent though it was—goes any way towards explaining the evident self-contradiction in the Conservative party’s position. Thirteen years ago—we are not talking about the 1980s here—the Conservatives capped the Lincolnshire police authority. When they were sitting on the other side of the House, they did exactly the same thing that they are condemning the current Labour Government for doing. It is encouraging to hear the hon. Gentleman say that times have changed, but I remind him of the simple statistic that between 1991 and 1997, the Conservatives capped 31 authorities. I do not understand how he thinks he can get away with saying that capping is a thing of the past, when the Conservatives used it with gay abandon throughout the time they were in government in the 1990s. Perhaps there are other political reasons why Conservative Members are so keen on condemning capping now, but they need to provide a great deal more evidence before any Member could seriously believe that if the Conservatives were in government, they would do anything other than what the present Government are doing.

Let me move on to deal with the Liberal Democrat position. I agree with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that the capping regime has passed its sell-by date, but so has council tax. The underlying issue is that we have an unfair system for funding these services. As hon. Members will know, Sir Michael Lyons’s review recommended the abolition of capping and said that last-minute decisions were costly to administer, so—

Mr. Hayes: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a very short debate and many Lincolnshire Members want to contribute to it, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), having treated us to an imperfect history of the 1980s and ’90s, is now describing the peculiarities of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Is that in order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Were it not, I certainly would have stopped the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he has heard the remarks that have just been made.

Lembit Öpik: I am not surprised to see that, with all the contradictions in their policies, the Conservatives are squirming. I would point out to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) that eight minutes is a relatively modest contribution and
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that unless I am considerably provoked, I will not see my way through to 11 minutes.

Let me also remind Conservative Members that the alternative is to have a system that would prevent us from being in this mess in the first place. Once again, we hear hints from Conservative Front Benchers that they do not like capping, so I would infer that they are not terribly comfortable with the council tax system as a whole. Perhaps, then, we could make common cause with a better system in the form of a local income tax, which would do away with these problems.

Given that the current situation is as it is, however, I revert to the fundamental principle that we find objectionable, and that when in opposition, the Labour party found objectionable: the principle of laying down the financial circumstances of local authorities from Westminster. That is exactly what we are doing here. Either we believe in local democracy and accept that local people have the right to vote on and object to these matters—in this case through consultation with local representatives—or we believe that the central state has the right to usurp those decisions.

The Liberal Democrats are utterly opposed to capping. We want the responsibility to lie in the local area and we think that, rather than having us intervene from a distance as we are now, we should allow the decision to be taken locally. Nobody thinks that a 79 per cent. increase is good, but any right-minded person who is serious about devolution and democracy can see that the principle of capping is very bad. For that reason, we shall press for a vote.

5.53 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): I was rather brought up to believe that the prime and foundational task of a Member of Parliament was to defend his or her constituents against unreasonable, excessive or unjust taxation. I rise this afternoon, conscious that that is what I am trying to do. I am struck by the fact that no Conservative Member—from Lincolnshire or anywhere else—appears to be remotely interested in playing that particular role. They are here, either explicitly or silently, to defend a completely unreasonable precept proposed by Lincolnshire police authority. With the honourable and laudable exception of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is not in his place, Conservative Members from Lincolnshire have been so much behind this precept—unreasonable and absurd as it is—that I am led to believe that the Conservatives on the police authority were whipped to vote in its favour.

It is against that background that we should interpret what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has said this afternoon. I have nothing against him personally: he is a Front-Bench spokesman and he has to do as good a job as he can; he did so on the basis of a very bad brief. We know what that job consists of, however, because we see it done every day. Opposition Front Benchers come to the House and say, “It’s all the Government’s fault—it’s all terrible.” This afternoon the hon. Gentleman talked of a long-term malaise that was apparently all the Government’s fault, without ever saying what the Conservatives would do differently. He did not suggest for a moment that they would introduce a different level or form of grant, or change the formula. What is more, he did not have the
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courage of his convictions in criticising the Government. Obviously he does not want to make himself even more unpopular in Lincolnshire by voting against the order, so he announced that he would not vote against it or call on his colleagues to do so.

In terms of its content the hon. Gentleman’s speech was a complete washout, although it was delivered in his usual charming fashion. As I have said, I do not blame him in any way. All that he is doing is coming to the House just as his colleagues do. It is only because we listen to the same thing every day that we can see through it. I understand why the public might initially think, “That sounds very plausible: something must be wrong, and it is all the Government’s fault—how terrible.” Nice Tories, with their modern image, would not apply their critical faculties and realise that what is being proposed is complete air, complete hollowness, complete nothingness. That is the background to so many debates in the House of Commons nowadays, and to so many Opposition motions.

Let me turn to the specifics of Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire is very well policed. We are fortunate enough to have a good police force, and there are very good relationships between the public and the police. That is not the case in every part of the country. In rather more than 20 years in politics representing the people of south Lincolnshire in slightly different constituencies—the constituency boundaries changed midstream—I have never encountered a case of police corruption or police violence. I will touch wood, because we all know that human beings are fallible everywhere, but I do not believe that there have been any such cases over that period, and probably for a long time before. We are deeply appreciative of that.

It is perfectly reasonable for a chief constable to have ambitious desires to develop the force, improve the service to the public and improve the facilities available to officers and civilian staff. I am sure that I would feel the same if I were a chief constable. Anyone who runs an organisation feels like that. There is an element of empire-building in any form of management. In the private sector it is controlled by competition: those who become uncompetitive go out of business. In the public sector, it must be controlled by some other discipline. There must be some external countervailing force or influence to prevent excessive spending. That is why we need the disciplines that we have in the public sector today, one of which is the capping mechanism.

I do not blame the chief constable—a previous chief constable, in fact—for producing a wish list that seems to have been excessively imaginative. I do, however, blame the police authority for not only accepting the wish list but adding to it, in an extremely uncritical fashion. I read with great attention the business plan and budget that the authority produced last summer, and begged its members not to proceed with it. Several things were wrong with it. First, it was far too long and full of verbiage and jargon. It was very incoherent and badly organised, and as a result very unconvincing. I think that someone else should draft the police authority’s business plans in future. Secondly, it made a number of extravagant demands without any critical examination of the possibility of internal savings.

A year ago almost to the day, I wrote a letter to the chairman of the police authority and the chief constable asking a number of questions. I asked, for example, why
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the number of civilians employed in the force could not be increased. Lincolnshire has a lower civilian quota than other shire counties. I received no reasoned answer to that question. I asked why we were not using specials more, and about a number of aspects of policing that seemed to me to be less than essential. I asked why we did not drop them and use the resources elsewhere, employing the officers concerned in other tasks. More recently, I have asked why our financial proposals do not take account of potential savings from the Flanagan reforms, and why we have not—as some constabularies have rightly done—tried to anticipate the reforms by getting rid of superfluous bureaucracy in advance. There is a lot of superfluous bureaucracy in the police force.

The Lincolnshire police force has over the past few months not been behaving in the way we would expect if it were true that it has been reduced to penury; far from it, in fact. We opened a very nice new police station in Grantham last year, and within a month or two it was being repainted. On a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago in Lincolnshire, I saw two policemen with speed guns engaged in traffic policing, but traffic policing should, on the whole, be done by civilians operating electronic equipment. I am always told that the real strain on policing occurs at the weekends—that that is the expensive time, and that that is when there are often law and order difficulties in various places, such as at football matches on Saturday afternoons. I believe that we should use more specials at such times, but leaving that point to one side, there were those two uniformed officers not chasing after dangerous criminals or engaged in the kind of dramatic police operations that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) was saying will have to be sacrificed if Lincolnshire does not get the money it is demanding, but simply handing out speeding tickets.

Neither my analysis of the Lincolnshire police budget and business plan, nor my own experience of Lincolnshire police, nor the reactions of my constituents—whom I believe are 100 per cent. behind me in everything I am saying on the subject—lead me to think that the demand for a 78 or 79 per cent. increase in the police precept from one year to the next was remotely reasonable or justified. The police authority’s task should be not to accept uncritically what the force is asking for, let alone to add to its wish list, but to act as an intermediary between the police and the public, and to take account of the taxpayers’ interests and of what the taxpayer can reasonably be expected to pay, and of what it is reasonable to ask for by way of an increase in charge for a public service from one week, month and year to the next.

Last week, we were talking about how great an increase in the pay of Members of Parliament it might be reasonable to ask for, even if in the past they have been underpaid in relation to other professions, which is, of course, perfectly true. We asked whether it would be acceptable to have a sudden dramatic catch-up over the course of a year. Even if there is an argument that Lincolnshire should have been more generously funded in the past, which I think it should have been, and even if there are arguments about the funding formula—which there are, and I believe the funding formula could be greatly improved—was it reasonable to go for a 78 per cent. increase? Was that even sensible or pragmatic? The people who did this have public responsibilities. They are supposed to act in a way that is not only sound in
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terms of the philosophy of what they are doing, but which makes sense pragmatically in terms of making it likely that they will achieve the objectives of the institution for which they have a charge. They suddenly asked for 78 per cent—I think the figure is 78.5 per cent. actually, but I always say 78 per cent. to try to be fair. [Interruption.] The Minister says the figure is 79 per cent. Regardless of which is correct, to ask for such an increase from one year to the next is immediately not to be taken seriously. Therefore, I think the police authority did a very irresponsible job.

Moreover, the police authority is entirely responsible, as it knew the score. It had people, including me, begging it not to go down that road, and it knew it would have to rebill if it was capped. Therefore, it is entirely responsible for this £500,000—that is the figure we have heard this afternoon—which it will cost to rebill. I have called in my constituency, and I call now in the House, for the resignation of the chairman of the police authority and of all those members of it who voted for this completely inordinate increase, because I think they did a very bad day’s work in doing so. They were quite irresponsible in the way in which they conducted that exercise, and they have now lost all credibility. I suspect they have lost a lot of credibility in Whitehall, and they have certainly lost a lot of credibility with the public in Lincolnshire, who can see that they were trying to get £100 or more out of them for a band D property, and they have now succeeded in getting only £30 for such a property. Also, as has been made clear, there will not be any redundancies as a result. A lot of the panicky propaganda that has been mouthed in Lincolnshire over the past few months has been seen to be as empty as the rhetoric we heard this afternoon from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

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