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28 Jan 2009 : Column 83WH—continued

28 Jan 2009 : Column 84WH

Giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee last year, Sara Thornton, the chief constable of Thames Valley police, admitted that it is a very young force. That has been commented on today. According to the chairman of a local branch of the Police Federation, the average length of service in Thames Valley police is just two and a half years. Considering the resources involved and the fact that it costs nearly £50,000 to train just one police constable, Thames Valley police are continuing to invest valuable money in training officers in the knowledge that that will be wasted because they will go to the Met. Clearly, losing officers at that rate will not benefit local communities in the Thames valley and it is a financial drain on resources. With just three years until the Olympic games, the demand for specialist officers will undoubtedly increase, exacerbating the problem.

I understand that Thames Valley police are continuing their dialogue with the Met, but there has yet to be a satisfactory conclusion to those discussions. One major concern is that, as many hon. Members have said, the Met is able to pay much more to equivalent ranks as a result of the London allowance and the free travel zone around the capital. One way to alleviate the problem—a way that is advocated by Thames Valley police and the Select Committee—would be to increase the south-east allowance to make it feasible for officers to live in the south-east, in places such as Reading. However, I do not know whether that solution is practical or even possible in the current economic climate. I doubt that the issue is worth pursuing in the short term.

Following the evidence session in Reading, in my constituency, the Home Affairs Committee recommended that the Met should agree with surrounding forces to limit transfers, and I believe that that is the right course of action. I understand that the need for specialist officers is somewhat greater in London, but it does not follow that that should be to the detriment of surrounding forces, such as our own. We are all vulnerable to the forces of extremist behaviour and terrorism, and Thames Valley police should be able to build and maintain a mature force that is fit to cope with the challenges that it faces. I believe that, by pursuing that course, Thames Valley MPs could make a real difference and persuade the Home Office to do what has been recommended.

There has been an increase in the number of police officers since 1997, but the impact of that increase has been curtailed by the Government’s self-imposed bureaucracy, meaning that those officers spend a mere 14 per cent. of their time on patrol. That negates the increase in numbers. Along with my constituents, I believe that police officers should spend more time on the beat, conducting high-visibility patrolling and providing reassurance. Police forces should be free to operate without the high levels of top-down interference to which they are subject from the Home Office.

I welcome the willingness of the Thames Valley force to embrace community policing by publishing local crime statistics and making crime maps available online. I am also pleased by the improvements that neighbourhood policing has brought about in my constituency of Reading, East, although there is still much work to be done. That was proved by the recent review of policing conducted by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, in which only 51 per cent. of respondents thought that the police were dealing with locally important issues. There is clearly a need to improve the public’s sense of connection
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with and confidence in the police. A great deal remains to be done in that respect. Community policing should be local; it should be what it says on the tin. Forces should be able to operate without Government restriction and they should be fully accountable to the communities in which they operate.

10.24 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on introducing the debate and on his commendable honesty. He confessed that he could not claim the credit for securing the debate, as there was a co-ordinated attempt to secure it. He is obviously not the sort of man who would say that he had saved the world unless he had.

I can confirm what other hon. Members have said, although I start by congratulating their local chief constable, Sara Thornton, on the work that she has done. It is clear that the results from Thames Valley’s area are good in terms of crime in the region falling, fewer victims of crime, response rates to emergency and non-emergency calls, and the number of offenders being brought to justice. I understand that the target in that respect was exceeded by 1,000, although with that particular target one has to add a word of caution about targets perhaps distorting priorities in terms of quick wins. However, the picture is very positive on fighting crime.

It is clear from the debate that officer retention is an issue. All hon. Members have spoken about that and I commend them for highlighting the concerns about the lack of experienced officers, or at least a smaller percentage of experienced officers relative to other forces. It is not as though there are not crime issues in the Thames valley. All hon. Members will have received the briefing pack on the issue and seen the article that refers to a problem in Milton Keynes. The reporter was taken around by officers and shown a bundle of guns that had been confiscated from a member of the public in Milton Keynes just a couple of days earlier, including five handguns and three rifles, so clearly there are significant policing issues in the region that require officers with significant experience to tackle them effectively.

Mr. Vaizey: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman saw the excellent documentary that was on last night, but it featured a Thames Valley police detective who co-ordinated the work of four constabularies to put the notorious Johnson gang in prison after they had smashed and grabbed numerous cash machines as well as raided many country houses. That is an example of the fine and experienced policing that we want to hold on to in the Thames valley.

Tom Brake: I agree entirely with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. Experienced officers are needed to crack organised crime in the way that he describes. Many hon. Members referred to what can be characterised as a brain drain of experienced officers from Thames Valley and other forces surrounding the Met area. In the Thames valley, the exodus in the last year has been the largest for six years, with a significant number of specialist officers leaving the force as well.

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Many hon. Members referred to the pay differential of £5,000 and to the free travel on offer with the Met. I do not want to quibble too much about the free travel. Clearly, there will be officers who have to travel a short distance to their place of work. The argument about people having free travel when they were perhaps paying much less for travel previously is perhaps not so strong in cases such as that, but I do not quibble with the basic principle, which is that if officers work in the Metropolitan police, they are substantially better paid, and for some there will be the attraction of free travel to their place of work.

Hon. Members referred to the forces around London being a recruitment pool for the Metropolitan police with regard to the expansion of Heathrow due to the new terminal and the London Olympics. The Oxfordshire branch of the Police Federation has expressed concern that officers will be poached over the next four years. I have some specific questions for the Minister. Does he believe that that is a realistic concern in the short term? When the Olympics take place, there will clearly be strong demand for additional officers to supplement the police presence, probably from all over the country. What will be the police profile? How many additional officers will be required to police the Olympics from now on? There will be a slow build up to the Olympics and a need for specialist officers. At what point will that growth in numbers occur?

A number of Members referred to training costs, which are significant. Indeed, additional training costs for the Thames Valley force since 2002-03 are £10 million, partly because specialist officers are being poached or are moving to work for the Met. Additional training costs will clearly be incurred to train officers in the use of the Taser. I seek clarification. I believe that the Government will pay for the Tasers, but that forces will be required to pay to train officers in their use. I have another specific question for the Minister: what does he expect the average cost of training an officer to be? That cost will clearly have an impact not only for the Thames Valley force, but for many others.

I hope that the Minister can answer some specific questions on what has happened since the meeting between the south-east police forces and the Home Secretary in January 2008. Other Members have already referred to what was promised.

The Metropolitan Police Service was to monitor transfers in from other forces and provide advanced warning to them every month. Will the Minister confirm that that has happened each month since that meeting? The Metropolitan Police Service was to run recruitment campaigns in conjunction with south-east forces. Will he confirm how many such joint recruitment campaigns have taken place? Finally, the Metropolitan Police Service was to work with forces by staging transfers when, for instance, the negative impact in relation to transferees was proving critical to service delivery. Will he confirm how many cases there have been in which a transfer has been delayed due to critical risk to service delivery?

I am sure that the House will want to know that that meeting resulted in some concrete outcomes. If the Minister cannot answer my questions today, I hope that he will write to Members to specify exactly what has happened.

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An idea that has not been put forward in relation to training is one that other industries have sought to implement. That was certainly the case when I was working in the IT industry 20 or more years ago. The big firms were keen to set up an agreement so that if one firm had a consistent record of poaching staff from other firms it would be fined an amount equivalent to the cost of training the employee. As a result, there was no incentive for firms not to train and poach staff from others.

Have the Government put that idea to the Metropolitan Police Service or discussed it with police forces? It might be a way forward. The fact that the Met does not have to pay the training costs is clearly one reason why it can offer more money to its officers—it is saving the training costs. If some sort of fine system was in place, there would be no such incentive. As a result, one might be able to reduce the brain drain, if not completely cut it.

Martin Salter: We have a healthy cross-party consensus today. As a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that his local Lib Dems trashed the Select Committee’s proposals—the entire notion of the south-east allowance and possibly of some recompense. Will he put on record Liberal Democrat Front-Bench support for taking that approach, rather than for the political pygmies who inhabit life in Reading?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is much more familiar with political pygmies in Reading than I am. Indeed, I am sure he has some in his party.

I am happy to put forward the idea of reducing the brain drain by putting financial incentives in place for forces not to poach officers from other forces. As for the south-east allowance, I would be happy to take the subject up with my party’s shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), and seek his authority to push the idea forward.

I am sorry to say that all hon. Members who have spoken so far have entered a caveat for everything they have said, saying, “It is not a spending commitment.” In practice, however, unless they can identify the funding, there may still be a need for a spending commitment.

Mr. Andrew Smith rose—

Martin Salter rose—

Tom Brake: I give way to the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who has not referred to political pygmies.

Mr. Smith: It should be made clear that neither my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) nor I have prefaced our demands with that statement. The hon. Gentleman should be correct in what he says.

Martin Salter rose—

Tom Brake: I am happy to give way again on that point.

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Martin Salter: It is always tough for someone who does not represent the area under discussion to be across all the issues, but the fact remains that Thames Valley policy authority has provision in its budget to pay for the south-east allowance uplift that we are all calling for. That is why the hon. Gentleman is fundamentally wrong, as is the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), to say that that is not an option worth pursuing at this time. The money is already in the budget. Is the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) aware of that?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that fact. It sounds familiar, given the arguments that have taken place over police pay. Nevertheless, I am happy to investigate and if necessary talk to the outstanding and fine Liberal Democrat activists in his area to see what approach they have adopted.

I mention one name that we have not yet heard in the debate—that of Boris Johnson. It cannot have escaped the attention of those Conservative Members who have spoken that the Mayor has a significant role in relation to the Metropolitan Police Service. I wonder whether a co-ordinated effort should be made to talk to the Mayor about his influence over how the Met operates. They may want to consider that. On that topic, I have a specific question for the Minister. Will he outline precisely where the Mayor’s responsibilities lie in relation to the Met and who could best address the issues that have been identified?

I do not want to take up too much time, but I wish to question the use of 0845 non-emergency numbers. They are used by Thames Valley police. I hope that the House will agree that if people want to contact the police or other organisations, they should not have to pay a premium, but that clearly happens if they have to call an 0845 number from a non-BT phone.

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It might help all hon. Members to know that the estimated cost of the south-east allowance is £20 million. On that basis, the estimated cost of the proposal by the Association of Chief Police Officers to give forces the flexibility to increase the allowance by up to an additional £1,000 per officer could be some £6 million a year, spread across the eight forces. As my hon. Friends have said, ACPO is clear that no additional central funding will be required to implement that change. I hope that that factual statement is helpful to the House.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for putting that on the record. It is indeed a useful clarification.

I hope that the House will agree that people should not have to pay a premium when using an 0845 number to contact the police for information. I have taken up the matter with the Home Office, but it has no plans to limit the use of those numbers. Perhaps the Minister will accept responsibility for pursuing the matter, as it has a significant cost impact on those seeking to report problems to the police, as well as to other organisations such as the NHS.

Clearly, hon. Members have made a strong case for tackling the problem of retention through both addressing how the Met handles this matter and the south-east allowance. I hope that the Minister will answer my questions and provide some clarification to Members.

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10.40 am

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing this debate, which has largely been conducted on a cross-party basis; Her Majesty’s Opposition are particularly well represented today. I wish to make two points by way of introduction. First, I hope that the Minister will resist the temptation to talk about national spending cuts and allegations about what the Opposition might be doing on police spending. In reality, as this debate has shown, he needs to conduct a review and consider some sensible rebalancing, so that Thames Valley police authority’s problems can be addressed. Secondly—I am sure that we can all agree on this—this is not exclusively a matter of money. If we want more police officers on the streets, we must look again and ruthlessly at one question: why is it that only one hour in five of patrol officers’ time is spent on patrol? Many interventions can be made to reduce bureaucracy and process to get more police officers on the beat and to improve visibility. This is not exclusively a numbers game, although numbers are terribly important.

This debate is important in the Thames valley and elsewhere. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) pointed out that detection rates are not as good as they should be. That comes against a backdrop, in the past year, of a 4 per cent. national increase in burglary, 16 per cent. in fraud and forgery and nearly 20 per cent. in street robberies committed at knife point. As a Cabinet Office study last August made clear, with the recession biting, we would expect acquisitive crime to rise. That would certainly be true in the Thames valley. We need more police to deal with that.

Early in the debate, we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) and for Banbury about the ban on movements within Thames Valley police authority. We also heard about the clear incentive for some officers to transfer to the Metropolitan Police Authority—because of the pensionable London weighting allowance, the London housing allowance, free travel passes and so on. In evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, Chief Constable Sara Thornton pointed out that more than 240 officers had transferred to the Met in the past five years. I wish to raise an important technical point with the Minister that I hope that he will bear in mind when he considers this matter again: that conflicts with numbers that I have received from the Met’s personnel department, which puts the figure at more than 330 transfers.

We need some clarity. In April of last year, I asked the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), about those numbers. He replied:

We need a better understanding of the scale of the problem. Obviously, we do not know the quantum, but Thames Valley has a huge problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), in a typically insightful point, drew our attention to the work force mix, and the levels of experience in certain ranks being depleted as a result of these transfers. Figures published by the Home Office in July 2008 break down, by rank, the number of officers entering and leaving the Thames Valley police authority. They show
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that in the last year for which figures are available, among the leavers were four chief superintendents, six superintendents, four chief inspectors and 11 inspectors. None of the new joiners to the force were above the rank of sergeant. In 2007, in Thames Valley police authority, 41 per cent. of officers had less than five years’ experience—the highest percentage in the country.

Thames Valley and their leadership are not just holding out a begging bowl. I know that—I have been briefed by Sara Thornton, who is an excellent chief constable—some housing schemes have been set up to assist more than 500 officers in Thames Valley on to the housing ladder. Also, in the south of Thames Valley, special priority payments are in operation. However, that is not enough. The self-help that Thames Valley’s leadership is practising, and the other innovative ideas that we have heard about, in retaining officers, are not sufficient.

As the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said—I was going to make this point anyway—the problem is getting worse. There has been a freeze in the allowance over the past five years, whereas the Met gets inflation. The inequality is not static, but will grow over time. Like other hon. Members, I urge the Minister to respond clearly to the recommendation, in the Home Affairs Committee report on policing in the 21st century, that the

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