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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 January 2009

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

Thames Valley Police

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

9.30 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am conscious of several things, including the fact that a good number of Members from all three counties that make up the Thames valley—Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire—are in the Chamber, so I will keep my comments as brief as possible to enable every colleague who wishes to speak to make a full contribution to the debate.

I thank the Minister for being here, as well as for having spent half a day late last year in Bicester, in my constituency, looking at the excellent work being done on neighbourhood policing by Thames Valley police in north Oxfordshire. His visit was genuinely welcome.

This debate is co-ordinated. I would not want it to go unsung in dispatches that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) co-ordinated our general submission of a request for a debate on the subject, nor would I want him to think that I was seeking to claim all the glory for an initiative that he helped to co-ordinate. This debate is the result, as I am sure the Minister will appreciate as it goes on, of a general frustration felt by Members from all political parties from all parts of the Thames valley about what is happening in policing there.

Last year, the Select Committee on Home Affairs undertook an inquiry on policing in the 21st century. The Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), said that the focus of that inquiry was on “recruitment and retention”—issues of concern to all of us who represent constituencies in the Thames valley area. Thames Valley police is the largest non-metropolitan police force in England, but it has one of the lowest ratios of police officers to population, which is a matter that relates to our grant. I have a strong suspicion that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) will say something about that, Mr. Atkinson, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye.

The crux of the debate and of my concerns is the fact that the Thames Valley police force is experiencing significant loss of police officers through transfers to the Metropolitan Police Service. In the past five years, the Thames Valley police force has lost 360 officers to the Met police. Of those, 52 were specialist officers such as firearms officers, detectives and road policing officers, who are more expensive to train and replace. Indeed, Thames Valley police lost 12 detectives to the Met in one year.

We are not the only area concerned by loss of police officers to the Met. The same concern is shared by police forces in Hertfordshire, Surrey, Kent, Essex, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. However, a substantial proportion of those transferring to the Met come from
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the Thames Valley police area. Sara Thornton, chief constable of Thames Valley police, was clear in her evidence to the Select Committee about the reasons why:

A Thames Valley police officer who transfers to the Met is instantly £5,000 better off, as well as receiving free travel, which probably equates to about £8,000 a year in all. Housing is still expensive in the Thames valley, notwithstanding recent economic difficulties, and is a particular challenge for younger police officers. One can jump on a fast train pretty well anywhere in the Thames valley area—whether in Banbury or Bicester in my patch or in Reading, Slough, High Wycombe, Milton Keynes or indeed any of the constituencies represented by hon. Members who are present—and be in London within an hour. The temptation is strong for officers to transfer to the Met for higher pay and better benefits.

The loss of so many police officers has disproportionate impact on the make-up of Thames Valley police. The force has the highest percentage of officers with fewer than five years’ service of all the police forces in England and Wales. I have been fortunate in the past year to take part in the police parliamentary scheme, which has involved spending several days on shift at Cowley police station, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). I was struck not just by the professionalism of the police officers, but by the fact that most of the officers going out into Oxford on shifts during the day, early in the day or late at night were largely recent recruits with little experience and service. That is not their fault; it is the reality of the turnover of officers in Thames Valley police.

Terri Teasdale, head of personnel at Thames Valley police, told the Select Committee:

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I may not be able to stay until the end of the debate, so I am grateful to my hon. Friend for permitting me to intervene. Does he agree that that also has a by-product? In Chesham and Amersham, when officers leave from other parts of the police authority, police officers with a great deal of experience of a particular area often have to move away from that area, where their experience could help with crime reduction and creating a strong policing presence. There is an internal churn within Thames Valley police, which is often damaging to policing in our constituencies.

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I suspect that both her constituency and mine are, in the totality of life, quiet compared with places such as Reading, Oxford or Slough. What tends to happen, therefore, is that if Thames Valley police are under pressure, officers are moved from constituencies such as hers and mine to areas where there are greater challenges, such as Oxford, Aylesbury or Slough. That is greatly unfair on her constituents and mine.

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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): On internal churn, although all areas within Thames Valley police are suffering from the problem that my hon. Friend is so clearly explaining, it is especially bad in the north, including in Milton Keynes. Thames Valley police has in the past been forced to put an internal ban on officer movement from north to south to compensate for the outflow into the Met police. That means that the situation is even worse in the north in places such as Milton Keynes.

Tony Baldry: It is also particularly bad in the north for other reasons that I shall explain later. Thames Valley police has sought to address the movement of police officers to the Met by slightly increasing pay—from its own resources—to officers in the south. However, officers in the north of the area, such as in Milton Keynes or in north Oxfordshire in my constituency, feel that that is somewhat unfair. It reflects the general pressure that so many officers transfer out.

As the interventions from my hon. Friends show, lower police numbers becomes a self-reinforcing problem. Having proportionately fewer police officers can make officers feel rather alone when on patrol, which can increase the attraction of the Met area, where there are a lot more officers to give support. Moreover, as Maurice Collins, chair of the Thames Valley Police Federation, noted:

He went on to observe:

That is a fundamental concern for all of us who represent constituencies in the Thames valley. It is not our judgment; it is the judgment of the Police Federation, which represents police officers out there on the beat.

For all of us living in the Thames valley, and for those of us who represent Thames valley constituencies, this is a serious issue. Moreover, if there are not enough police officers to go round, those we have tend to be allocated to larger towns such as Oxford, Reading and Slough, and constituencies such as mine, and those of my hon. Friends who are present, sometimes feel very stretched for police resources.

The loss of officers is further exacerbated by what is known as the Edmund-Davies bubble. In the Thames valley, we have a significant number of officers who will retire in the next few years—139 in 2009-10, and 172 in 2010-11. That means that the Thames Valley police force is getting close to capacity in terms of taking in recruits. The problem is not capacity at the training school, but coping with the large number of newly recruited officers on patrol, having sufficient tutor constables and needing to take people away from front-line policing to support probationers.

The Thames valley has become a training ground for the Metropolitan police. This year, the Met plans to recruit 550 transfers; it actually has a plan to do that. That means that its budget—I hope that the new commissioner will think seriously about the morality of
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this—works on the basis that it will be able to recruit more than 500 trained police officers from other forces. The Met is therefore relying on other police forces to train and provide it with 550 officers this year alone, many of whom are specialist officers. That is unfair and unsustainable, and it is likely to get worse as we approach the 2012 Olympics and the expansion of Heathrow. We are talking about a police force that is not as experienced as it could be if it had not lost experienced officers.

Not only are we losing experience, but the Thames Valley force is incurring training costs, which will be reflected in the grant funding formula. The force has calculated that the cost of training is £55,000 for a normal constable, rising to £77,000 for a firearms officer. Therefore, if only 20 officers transfer, even at a cost of £55,000 each to train, that is £1 million. Our concern is that local people in the areas around London—our council tax payers—are paying to train their local police while the benefit is being felt in London.

A south-east allowance was introduced a few years ago, but it has remained frozen, whereas the Metropolitan police’s London weighting allowance has continued to rise, so the pay gap has become wider. The Thames Valley police force has done what it can within its resources. It is now using 3 per cent. of its pay budget, which is a considerable amount of money for the force, to try to give officers in the south of its area, who are more likely to find it easier to work in London, a bit more money, but that is a stretch on its budget. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) has shown, it also creates tension within Thames Valley police. The force has helped more than 700 of its officers on to housing schemes, so 15 per cent. of its officers are being helped in that way.

The force is doing what it can, within its resources, to assist retention, but that still leaves the main issue: the difference between pay and conditions in Thames Valley police and in the Metropolitan police, and the free travel afforded to officers in the Met. As the local Police Federation representation has made clear:

The Home Affairs Committee, of which the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) is a member, reached a unanimous conclusion in last year’s report on 21st-century policing. It made two relevant recommendations: differential pay between the Metropolitan police and surrounding forces should be reduced, and the Metropolitan Police Service should negotiate a protocol with surrounding forces on the recruitment of staff. I note that although the Met has made noises about such a protocol, nothing has really happened.

My submission to the Minister is that the south-east allowance should be increased substantially to recognise the cost of living in areas such as Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, including in towns such as Banbury and Bicester in my constituency, because the current situation is simply unfair. He will doubtless jump up and ask how that should be funded, but the question that he should address is how to tell a police officer in Slough that they are worth £6,000 a year less than a police officer 2 or 3 miles down the road in Uxbridge. That is unsustainable.

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The Home Secretary has yet to respond to the Select Committee’s unanimous report, but the Committee has made two very straightforward recommendations and we hope that that response will be positive.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Before calling Mr. Salter, may I have an indication as to how many Members wish to speak? The winding-up speeches will have to start at about 10.30 am. If my maths is right, that gives hon. Members about six minutes each. If they stick to that, they can all get in.

9.46 am

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I shall do my best to stick to six minutes, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing the debate. He has set out arguments on which we all agree. I have been ploughing this furrow, which is not such a lonely furrow any more—I welcome the number of Members who are throwing their weight behind the campaign—since 2002, when my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) and I launched the initial campaign for a south-east allowance. The hon. Member for Banbury joined me and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in meeting the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty)—now the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform—to put forward the case for substantial increases in the south-east allowance. We also floated the interesting notion of transfer fees. How is it that the Met police can use not only the Thames Valley force but the five other forces surrounding London as a recruitment pool and training ground, while the council tax payers in our constituencies are in effect subsidising the training of Met police? That has to be wrong.

We are not talking about raw numbers; there have been 417 more police officers since 1996—the Thames Valley force has never had so many officers. The issue for all of us, in all our constituencies, is not the number of officers, but the number of experienced and fully trained officers. Let us be clear: experienced coppers catch more crooks.

In Reading, in 2003, we held a conference on regional pay. The then chief constable of the Thames Valley police, Peter Neyroud, provided us with some pretty shocking figures. If we had carried on losing experienced officers to the Metropolitan police and elsewhere at the rates that we were losing them in 2001, 2002 and 2003—about 90 officers a year—there was a realistic prospect that within four or five years the streets of my constituency, and of the Thames valley as a whole, would have had only a minority of experienced officers. By that, I mean that there would have been a minority of non-probationer officers patrolling our streets, which would have been simply unacceptable.

Ironically, what was said at the regional pay conference—at which the guest speaker was the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith)—prefigured what appeared in the Home Affairs Committee report, which I was proud to help produce. The report’s recommendations could not have been starker, and we need to press the Minister for an early response from the Home Secretary on the issue. The south-east allowance
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should be increased substantially, and the Metropolitan police should be forced to adopt a protocol and a neighbourly way of working.

It cannot be right for the Metropolitan police to offer bounties to attract a member of Thames Valley police or one of the surrounding London forces to apply for a job in the Metropolitan police. I understand that the bounty is reported to be between £250 and £400. We have heard stories of the Metropolitan police putting on coaches for recruitment fairs in our constituencies. That cannot be right. It is particularly galling for my hon. Friend the Member for Slough to hear stories from police officers in her community who walk past bus shelters advertising to attract police officers away from her streets and communities. That is an aggressive and entirely deliberate recruitment strategy—it is not an accident of history or geography—and it has to stop.

In February 2008, I put together a cross-party delegation of Members of Parliament to see the Home Secretary. She is fully aware of the issue and has tried to raise it with the byzantine machinery of the Police Negotiating Board. The issue stalled because of the problems with police pay. Those have now been resolved and I understand that the machinery is once again grinding, but exceedingly slowly. It is time that we, as politicians, gave that machinery a kick and made the wheels move a little faster.

Because this is a general debate on Thames Valley police, as well as touching on the recruitment issue, I pay tribute to three exceptional police officers with whom I have had the privilege of working during my 25 years in public life, particularly during the 11 years I have spent in Parliament. The first person is Dave Murray, who is the finest area commander I have ever worked with. He was a Reading area commander for many years—a copper’s copper—and did a huge amount to re-establish the reputation of police in my community. He is still sorely missed both by officers and the community.

I have worked with two exceptional chief constables. Our current one—Sara Thornton—is quite exceptional and inspirational. As an aside, I congratulate her on overturning one of the more stupid decisions of her underlings, which was to try to refuse to police the Reading versus Celtic testimonial match scheduled for May this year. Apparently, we were going to be engulfed in a tidal wave of sectarian violence for some reason—perhaps we should have a debate on the role of special branch and the quality of the intelligence it puts forward; but seriously, Sara Thornton has been a magnificent and inspirational leader of Thames Valley police.

Lastly, I pay tribute to Peter Neyroud, who heads up the National Police Improvement Agency. He was an inspirational leader and recognised the need to concentrate resources—although my colleagues from more rural constituencies might take issue with that—on where the crime was rather than just where the people live. It is a simple fact that although one can make a case for spreading police officers around the Thames valley like jam, if young people from Newbury or Wantage are spending a Friday or Saturday night out in Reading or Oxford, police officers need to go where the crimes and problems might arise.

I hope that the Minister will respond positively to what I think will be a common rallying call in this debate. I do not want to organise any more delegations to see Ministers about the issue. I do not want to sign any more early-day motions. I do not want to organise
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any more conferences; in fact, I do not want to make any more speeches on the issue, which is why I shall now sit down, but nor do I want a nasty glimpse of the future that shows my community and the communities of my colleagues in the Chamber policed by raw recruits. That is not policing for the 21st century.

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