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6.4 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The House has just heard a rather disagreeable attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and a rather self-regarding speech from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), which included a rather disagreeable attack on the police authority. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that his present position on policy, and indeed in this House, would be more impressive if it had more to do with principle and less with personal pique. That is the last that I shall say of or to the hon. Gentleman in this debate.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: No, I will not give way. I had to give way to the hon. Gentleman when he sat on these Benches. I am happy to say that I do not have to give way to him now, and I do not propose to do so. I hope that I have made my position clear.

I have no doubt that my constituents will be relieved by the fact that there has been a capping order. Inevitably, they were distressed by an increase at the level proposed by the police authority. Inevitably, they will also be relieved that they will pay less as a consequence of the capping order, but we must understand that what the
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police authority did reflected a serious underlying problem within the Lincolnshire police force.

Those of us who have represented the county for many years, and my hon. Friends who have been in their places throughout this debate, know well that the Lincolnshire police force faces a serious problem of structural underfunding. Only a limited number of sources of finance are available to the police service. There is the precept, there is central Government grant and there is a special grant. The problem that Lincolnshire faces—and has faced for several years—is that the underlying grant has been too low. It is possible that we could criticise the police authority, in temperate and courteous language, for not having in the past increased the precept by as much as it could have done. I am inclined to think that there is some merit in that criticism and if the hon. Gentleman had confined himself to that, I would have had some sympathy with him.

It is also possible that further savings could be made by the police service. I was, many years ago, a Home Office Minister with responsibility for the police and I am conscious that there are few police forces of which one could say that there are no further savings that they could sensibly make. However, that does not go to the root of the matter, which is one of structural underfunding.

The Lincolnshire police force is now looking at a structural shortfall—a deficit—in 2010 of £14 million. It can put that right only through an increase in its funding or a decrease in expenditure. One of the real problems that face police services—and local authorities, fire and ambulance services—is that more than 80 per cent. of their budget goes on manpower. If police services want to shrink their budgets, they have to cut manpower. It can be done over time by reducing the number of uniformed officers, but I do not think that many people in Lincolnshire want to see that happen. It can be done by sacking civilian staff, but that involves up-front redundancy costs and then requires uniformed staff to do the tasks previously done by the civilian staff. That also reduces front-line services.

We should be as unpartisan as we can about this problem—and I make that point to the hon. Gentleman. There is a structural problem in Lincolnshire. I suspect that that is also true of Norfolk, Suffolk and some of the other forces. Why that should be so, I am not wholly clear. I have some difficulty in understanding the formula, as does the hon. Gentleman. He attended many a meeting that I did, and he did not understand, any more than I did, exactly how the formula was calculated. I have a strong feeling that rural areas are being discriminated against. That is not deliberate or malevolent, but because the Government’s sympathies are not with the rural areas they have not focused on the matter with the intensity with which they should.

I suspect that something like the following is true of Lincolnshire. Although it is a sparsely populated county, habitations are located quite close together. There are not many areas of wildness where there is nobody. Areas that contain nobody do not have to be policed too much, but sparsely populated counties with a lot of habitation have an intensive police requirement.

Mr. Hayes: The characteristic that my right hon. and learned Friend is describing with such eloquence is that of a sparse and scattered population. I suspect that the
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formula that he described is insensitive to sparsity and almost oblivious to the kind of scattered population that he describes.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend has put it more eloquently than I have and I am extremely grateful to him.

There has been recognition of the underlying problem because the Home Office made a specific grant of £3.4 million last year. The fact that the capping has allowed the precept to rise by 26 per cent. or so is also an implied recognition of the problem. At the very best, it allows for a standstill budget and no more.

Most people in the county, and most sensible commentators, too, will accept that the police in Lincolnshire are not performing as well as they should. They need more resources and unless there is a determination to drive up the base income, which is derived from the formula, there will be no prospect of a substantial increase in the resources dedicated to the county in the foreseeable future. I will not vote against the order, unlike the Liberal Democrats, because I recognise that it will be a considerable relief to my constituents. I will not embark on intemperate criticism of the police authority, such as that which I found so deeply unattractive, because it is wrestling with a serious problem and doing the best that it can in difficult circumstances. Unless we confront the problem of the formula, Lincolnshire and other police forces will find themselves in continuing difficulties that they will be unable to resolve.

Mark Simmonds: My right hon. and learned Friend is eloquently putting the balanced case that is of great concern to our constituents. Is he also of the view, as I am, that the significant increase in population in certain parts of Lincolnshire, particularly in my constituency around Boston, caused by a significant number of economic migrants coming to work in the agricultural and horticultural sectors has not yet significantly been taken appropriately into account and reflected in the funding formula and the money that comes to the police authority?

Mr. Hogg: I am sure that that is right. Thinking back to when I had dealings with the formula, which I always had great difficulty in understanding, I knew that there were long lead times and that the configuration of the county would change but that the changes in the configuration would take time to be fed into the formula. In the case of my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am well aware that there has been a huge influx, particularly from eastern Europe, of migrant workers, many of whom bring special problems—for example, linguistic problems. That raises an issue for the local force and I am sure that that has not been reflected.

Lembit Öpik: Incidentally, I find visitors from eastern Europe quite charming, especially those from Romania. My point about the funding formula relates to the discrimination that I am certain is taking place and that is taking funding away from rural areas. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that if that is the case it is probably happening because the performance indicators cause the police and the Government to try to focus police resources on places where they can get the biggest hit, which tend to be in the inner city? As a
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direct result, both Lincolnshire and my constituency, Montgomeryshire, have suffered when it comes to police resources.

Mr. Hogg: There is some truth in that. May I speak as a barrister, just for a moment? I practise in the criminal courts and in that capacity I am aware of the intensity of crime in inner-city areas. I represent people from Leeds and Bradford, and often from London as well, and I am really conscious of how lawless large parts of the inner cities have become. I recognise therefore that the Government feel that the police have to address those issues seriously, and I agree, but I think that they tend to overlook the problems that occur in the countryside. Although crime levels as such are lower in rural areas, anxiety about crime remains very high, and particular types of crime remain very difficult to detect, in part because of the sparsely populated nature of the countryside. I think that the Government’s sympathies are not inherently with the rural areas, which they find easier to neglect than they do the cities.

I shall not accuse the Minister of being complacent, as I understand that he is speaking to a brief. I understand too that he can say, “Well, a standstill budget, what’s wrong with that?” However, I hope that he will take away from this debate an understanding that Lincolnshire has a serious problem with its police. He has prevented an immediate crisis, but he has not enabled the police to provide the better service that they need to provide.

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, along with the police authority, has been good enough to see me and to speak about this matter on a number of occasions. I hope that the two Ministers will seriously ask themselves whether they are content with the level and standing of the police in Lincolnshire. If the honest answer to that is no—and that is the proper answer to give—they need to work together and with others to see whether more central Government funding can be brought to the Lincolnshire police budget.

6.16 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): It is an immense pleasure to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Before I speak about the police funding formula and Lincolnshire, I should like to put on record the fact that the Ministers for Local Government and for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing have both treated the representations made to them with care and courtesy.

At the end of my remarks I shall be making a further demand of the Minister, but I shall begin with a word about the formula. I have understood local government finance only twice, and then fleetingly. My right hon. and learned Friend said, with a degree of humility matched only by his eloquence, that he barely understood it at all when he had responsibility for it. The first time that I understood it fleetingly was when I studied it at university as part of my degree, and the second time was when, as a Nottinghamshire county councillor, I proposed a budget amendment during that council’s annual budget meeting.

Those occasions were brief candles, now long extinguished, but I do understand that the formula does not serve Lincolnshire well. From the communications that I have received from the police authority, as well as from my discussions with Ministers and my conversations
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with my hon. Friends, I suspect that that is due in part to the formula’s failure to cope adequately with the particular problems of rural areas and their sparse and scattered populations, and in part to its unresponsiveness to change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) will speak about the situation in Boston with altogether more knowledge than I can, but, as has been mentioned, the incoming population from central and eastern Europe has caused dramatic change in the area. I am not sure that the formula is terribly good at dealing with the rapidity of the changes that we have seen in Lincolnshire, or with the difficulties of providing a public service in a demography such as Lincolnshire’s.

We might say the same about health provision or the social services, but the problem is exaggerated in respect of policing, which faces a combination of demands. One is the need to respond to urgent problems, and that is coupled with the need for a profile which, if not ever present, is at least sufficient to reassure the public and deter criminals.

I am sure that the Minister has recognised that the formula needs to be re-examined. Unless it is, we will end up in this circumstance again, we will debate the matters in a similar fashion and Ministers will spend inordinate amounts of time trying to come to a settlement, following the representations made to them by people such as us, the police authority and others. That would not be a satisfactory position for the House, for Lincolnshire or, indeed, for the Government.

The feeling in Lincolnshire about those matters is running high. I was pleased to present to 10 Downing street a petition that was signed by several thousand of my constituents and organised between me and the local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Free Press, which was kind enough to publish coupons that local people filled in, demanding that the Government take action. In that much I agree—although it pains me to do so—with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), whose presence is a delight to me, if only because, however inadequate my contribution, by contrast with his it will shine. He is right to concede that it must be said that the Government have at least responded to the concerns by using their discretion on capping.

The Government were right not to cap the authority at 5 per cent., because the effect would have been monstrous, but I understand why the Government took the view that the scale of the authority’s proposed increase was intolerable, because it would have not only ridden roughshod over policy, but placed an unfair burden on my constituents. However, by allowing the 26 per cent. increase, the Government have implicitly acknowledged that there is an infrastructural funding problem, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham described it. By accepting an increase of that size, they acknowledged that the police authority was in crisis, and that if they had not permitted that—still very large—increase, it would have faced cuts and closures, jeopardising public safety and public order in the estimation both of the authority, which has done a good job in making its case,
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as Ministers acknowledge, and of the police force, which has worked closely with representatives and with the authority.

Mr. Hogg: May I just refer to the point that my hon. Friend made about allowing the precept to rise by about 26 per cent? That implies that the grant should have been higher by the amount of the increase in the precept, but the Government are in fact shifting the responsibility from the central taxpayer to the local taxpayer to perform that which central Government should be performing.

Mr. Hayes: Yes, indeed. It is not only an implicit acknowledgement of the scale of the problem, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend suggests, a transfer of responsibility for solving the problem. People in Lincolnshire will say, “We’re doing our bit, why isn’t the Government doing their bit?” We may be judging Ministers too harshly, and at the end of the debate, the Minister may tell us that he will conduct a root-and-branch review of the formula and make a special grant available to the police force, as the Government did last year.

Mark Simmonds: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hayes: I shall happily give way to my hon. Friend, who is an assiduous champion of his constituents’ interests in that regard and in many others.

Mark Simmonds: I think that my hon. Friend is coming to the crux of his remarks. He is absolutely right that there was a special one-off grant of £3.4 million last year to the Lincolnshire police authority, but is he aware that when the Government calculated the increase this year, they did not take into account that £3.4 million as the base figure, thereby making the authority’s increased funding actually a decrease in the amount that it received last year?

Mr. Hayes: My hon. Friend brings to the debate an understanding and a knowledge that I could not hope to emulate, and he is right to say that the addition of that £3.4 million effectively raised the baseline. It had become the standard, the norm, for the police authority, because it had spent and absorbed it, and the assumptions on which its future plans were predicated were built around that absorption. My hon. Friend has made a useful point. When we debated the matter in previous weeks and months, I wondered whether the Government might not only allow an exceptional rise in the precept but make a similar kind of grant, given the facts that my hon. Friend set out so clearly. That would, in a sense, be a compromise. It would broadcast the message that Government were doing their bit and the council tax payers were doing theirs.

However, as I say, perhaps the Minister has something up his sleeve—a rabbit that he will produce from his hat—in the form of extra money, or at least a commitment to a root-and-branch reform of the formula. I also hope that he will give a commitment—I make this request to him quite plainly—to meet representatives of the authority and the force as a matter of urgency to plan what will happen in the immediate future and in the next 12 months, so that we avoid a recurrence of these circumstances.

Others want to speak, and I do not want to test their patience, or the patience of the House, too much, but in summary, we remain in our current circumstances. We have been given a very useful briefing by the police authority, to which I will refer. Lincolnshire remains the
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lowest spending force per head of population, and the force with the fewest officers per head of population. Despite having less resources than any other force in the country, Lincolnshire police are expected to cover the third biggest geographical area. Is it any wonder that the police authority, but more especially the police force, in the form of the former chief constable and our new chief constable—a splendid man, who I know will do his very best with the resources available to him—are so worried about their ability to provide the level and quality of policing that, in their judgment, the communities in Lincolnshire need and deserve? The chief constable has said

When policemen make remarks of that kind, we know that there is a serious problem.

We are not talking about providing an exemplary level of service, or about an ambitious—perhaps unreasonably so—plan for how policing might be improved. We are talking about acceptability—a baseline level of service. Surely my constituents in South Holland and The Deepings, and other residents of Lincolnshire, deserve at least that. I am sure that the Minister, who is a good Minister, would not demur.

Finally, I hope that the case that has been made is a measured one. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford—I do not want to be unnecessarily unkind to him, but it is necessary to be reasonably unkind to him—claims that the case has been exaggerated, and is extreme in some way. I totally disagree. I think that the case made by Members of Parliament, local authority representatives and the force has been measured. The authority and the force want to be able to respond to changes in population demands, and they want to devise a plan for dealing with serious organised crime, which does exist in Lincolnshire, despite the bucolic image often painted of our county—and indeed, it is a splendid place to live. They want to develop policing to meet current needs and dynamic demands. They deserve the chance to be able to do so.

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that we must accept the order. I want the police force in Lincolnshire to be able to implement its plans to do its best for Lincolnshire people. Is that unreasonable? I think not.

6.29 pm

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who is an articulate and tireless campaigner on behalf of his constituents. He was absolutely right to highlight the real concern felt when the police authority put forward its initial precept. Both our constituencies have a significant number of hard-working but low-waged people who find things difficult, particularly given the current economic contraction, rising fuel and food prices, and the fact that they have little public transport and little alternative to using their cars to get to work and go about their daily business. A rise of nearly 80 per cent. in the police precept therefore presented a significant challenge to their personal and family finances. That is one reason why I will not vote against this capping order.

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