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Dyfed-Powys police force has made great progress in the past few years on achieving efficiency gains. Between 2005-06 and 2007-08, it achieved efficiency savings of
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£9.8 million, well above its target of £7.3 million. The theory is that the force should be using those efficiencies to invest in, for example, protective services and other Government priorities. However, the force tells me that it has to use those efficiency savings just to maintain baseline services, and there is very little capacity to make improvements. The force has particular concerns about the expectations in the policing pledge—about its ability, for example, to respond to emergency and non-emergency calls within 20 minutes on all occasions, and about the timescales in which victims of crime need to be informed. Being able to meet those expectations is challenging.

Several hon. Members have already mentioned the rural police grant. I would like to reiterate the points that have been raised. There is concern in Dyfed-Powys police force authority about the future of the rural police grant. I am not, perhaps, expecting the Minister to say any more about that than his colleague has already said in this debate, but I would like to impress upon him the needs of rural areas and the challenges that rurality throws up. If he cannot say what the future holds for the rural police grant, I would be grateful if he could give an indication of what his thinking is on how different aspects of rurality will be taken into account in the discussions and considerations about the future of the rural police grant.

Let me return to my point about the liquefied natural gas terminals. There is significant concern about how well protected those facilities are. Just to remind hon. Members, in the years ahead the two LNG terminals will have the capacity to import 30 per cent.—almost a third—of the UK’s entire natural gas requirement. They are clearly a significant piece of national infrastructure. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that in great detail, but concern has been communicated to me about a proposed reduction in the funding for officers engaged in security work at the port of Milford Haven. I do not want to speculate about why that might be so or about where else resources might be deployed. However, if the Minister receives an application from the police force in Dyfed-Powys for additional resources to support the policing of the LNG terminals, I would ask him to look favourably on that request.

2.33 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, albeit only briefly. I commend the Minister on the fact that he has always been responsive to representations made to him about the police settlement. Indeed, I think that I am the third Member from the Dyfed-Powys police area to contribute to today’s debate. We do so on the basis that we are very proud of our police force. The people who live in the Dyfed-Powys area are basically satisfied with the service that they get. They complain from time to time about police visibility, but we live in a sparsely populated area. It is a challenge for the chief constable to deploy his forces around that area to give people confidence.

However, the force does a lot of good. I attended an event last week at which awards were given to police officers, specials, police community support officers and back-room staff for the work that they had done in the Powys area. The citation on each award read “For making Powys a safer place”. That must be the aim of the police force.

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The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) raised a number of points, which I would like to reinforce. In a way, the representations that we are making today are not about the present police settlement, but about its future. Mention has been made of Ronnie Flanagan’s report, which, if I understand it correctly, says that the formula must be adhered to more strictly. However, the fact that the funding for many Welsh police forces depends on exceptions being made to the formula, rather than on the formula being delivered right across the piece, is important. Indeed, if the floor—the minimum of 2.5 per cent. of the settlement—were not implemented for all four Welsh police authorities, there would be a loss to those authorities of £15 million.

I also want to mention the rural policing grant. The rule 2 grants make a contribution to the funding of authorities, but most of those grants are spread among all the police authorities, whereas the rural policing grant goes to only a limited number of authorities. That being the case, certain police authorities would suffer disproportionately if the rural policing grant were abolished or if the rule 2 grants were brought within the formula. If that happened, it would be difficult for Dyfed-Powys police to maintain the standard of policing that the people living in the area have come to expect. If we were to aspire to the same level of policing, there would be a huge increase in the precept, and in the council tax that people would have to pay—and we know how unfairly council tax falls on the lowest paid in our communities.

I want to comment on one other issue. At the moment, the area that I represent has only one set of custody cells for an area that extends for about 80 miles south to north and about 40 miles east to west. That means that putting somebody arrested in Llandrindod Wells into a custody cell requires a journey of at least 30 miles, which takes police officers away from their duties, just to take a prisoner from a police station without a custody cell to one with a good custody suite. It is important to make the appropriate capital investment in the infrastructure, so that the police can spend their time dealing with the issues that the public expect them to deal with, rather than having to transport prisoners.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about custody suites. We have a new all-singing, all-dancing custody suite in the Pembrokeshire division. However, officers have raised with me concerns similar to the hon. Gentleman’s point, about how making arrests in different parts of the area now ties up an awful lot of police time. One of those concerns is that the new custody suite might create a disincentive to bringing into custody people who would previously have been taken into custody closer to where the offences were committed.

Mr. Williams: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Both of us are making the point that investment in capital works—such as new buildings and new custody suites—can improve policing quite considerably, to an extent that would be noticed and appreciated by the general public. I am talking in particular about Llandrindod Wells, where there is a scheme for a new police station with custody cells and a magistrates court, which will be integrated with an ambulance station and a fire station, so that we can have all the emergency services co-operating as one.

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Although we in the Dyfed-Powys police area accept the present settlement and understand the circumstances in which it has been made, we are not happy with it. We look forward to a review of the formula to make it work, although we view that process with trepidation. We understand that there is only one representative from Wales on the group that will review the formula. We just hope that Wales’s special needs will be reflected in the outcome of those considerations.

2.40 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): This is a welcome opportunity to debate the police grant settlement, which forms about half of the police’s funding, the rest coming from the local government finance system—a combination of revenue support, non-domestic rates and council tax. There cannot be many MPs who are entirely happy with the Government’s handling of the police pay settlement last year—we all received a sizeable postbag on the matter—because the Government clearly got it wrong, and Ministers probably regret the way in which they handled it at the time. The pay settlement has left a legacy of bitterness. I can still go into my local police station in Reading and see the posters on the wall that say “Tough on crime, tough on the fighters of crime”. I know that the Government have since tried to address the pay settlement, but the bitterness will remain for some time. What happened has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to pay tribute to my local police force, the Thames Valley police, for its continuing hard work and good performance. This year’s unremarkable police settlement reflects the overall spending review provision from the Home Office—that is, no real-terms increase. This translates into a 2.7 per cent. increase in the general police grant for 2009-10. It is true that Thames Valley police is quite fortunate, because it is one of the police authorities to receive a higher police grant allocation, compared with other shire authorities. It will receive £238 million this year, which equates to a 2.7 per cent. increase on last year’s settlement. That is not one of the highest settlements, but, fortunately, it is not one of the lowest either. I am grateful to the Home Secretary, who recognises the importance and the position of the Thames Valley force, because of its close proximity to London, and has allocated funds accordingly. Despite that, however, there are certain issues that it will be useful for me to put on record today.

I have mentioned before that the Thames Valley police force suffers from considerable problems of officer retention. A major concern is that the Metropolitan police is able to pay its officers much more than Thames Valley police can pay its equivalent officers. The Met is also able to give its officers free travel within a 70-mile zone right around London. The south-east allowance, which was introduced a few years ago in an effort to curb a further manpower drain, has remained frozen, while the Metropolitan police’s London weighting allowance has continued to rise.

The incentive gap has therefore become wider, and it has become much more attractive for Thames Valley officers to move to London to improve their economic position. This is now causing a serious problem for the Thames Valley force. Its chief constable, Sara Thornton, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee
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when it happened to be meeting in my constituency, said that she would be in favour of increasing the south-east allowance by £1,000 a year to make it easier for officers living in the south-east not to get sucked in by the extra pay and free travel that they would get for working in London.

I believe that the chief constable has since met—and continues to have an important dialogue with—the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing, with the intention of introducing the flexibility further to increase the south-east allowance. In a debate in Westminster Hall last week, it became clear that Thames Valley police had the money in its budgets to fund that allowance and to make it available. During the debate, I think that the Minister said that an uplift in the allowance in the south-east would cost about £20 million, and that he referred to a figure of about £2 million to achieve the uplift in the Thames Valley police area. I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong.

Mr. Coaker: I have not got the figures for the south-east allowances with me at the moment. However, I did say that the moneys in the budget for those allowances were not a matter of additional resource, which I think was helpful to the general debate. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) will verify that. I also said that this is not a ministerial decision; it is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board to come to an agreement with all the various bodies involved on how to resolve the issue. While I am on my feet, I should also like to say, in response to being asked to “have a word” about these matters, that it was not so much a matter of having a word; it is just that I saw this as a matter for the board and as a priority for it to resolve it. I know that that is what it is trying to do.

Mr. Wilson: I thank the Minister for that intervention. I am absolutely delighted to hear him repeat that this is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board; that was stated last week and it has now been repeated this afternoon. I welcome that statement.

If the Thames Valley force takes its case to the negotiating board and is successful, it will be committed to paying that additional allowance. I hope that that will go some way towards alleviating the problem of experienced officers being sucked into the London Metropolitan police area. I should like to make it clear that I am not advocating any additional grant resources to the Thames Valley, but if the force is to retain its best officers, it will need the Minister’s support to try to resolve this situation.

Its costs the Thames Valley police £55,000 to train each trainee constable, but it has lost 242 officers in the past five years. It would be a drain on any force for those numbers to continue, and this issue is an increasingly difficult problem and a big financial drain for the Thames Valley force. Anything that the Minister can do to help will certainly be appreciated by the chief constable.

Thames Valley police has become a training ground for the Metropolitan police, and my constituents—along with the other people served by the force in the wider Thames Valley—will undoubtedly suffer a poorer service if that is allowed to continue. Indeed, the chief constable has said publicly that the force is a very young one, and that it needs experienced officers as part of the overall mix of officers in the area. In addition to the £1,000 uplift
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for police pay in the Thames Valley force that the chief constable is asking for, there also needs to be an agreement with the Metropolitan police that it will not poach significant numbers of police officers. That would be extremely welcome to the chief constable in the Thames Valley, and I am sure that the Minister will do all that he can to facilitate such an agreement.

I would like to raise a number of other financial issues, particularly in relation to population growth. The chief constable has raised significant concerns about the impact of population growth right across the Thames Valley, and I know from my experience of living in Reading for the past 25 years that the city has grown significantly in that time. Of course, more recently, immigration has added enormously to that population pressure. Several years ago, I was briefed by the police in Reading that much of the serious organised crime in Reading was run by immigrants, many of whom were in the country illegally. I would be interested to get an update on that from Thames Valley police, and to hear whether the Minister has any further information on whether there has been any improvement.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a strong and compelling case. Does he agree that the problem with the extrapolation of population statistics with regard to the funding formula is that they are based on out-of-date figures from 2004, and that those figures should have been updated before the comprehensive spending review? Does he agree that this is having a direct impact on front-line policing across the country?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I know that Slough has had many problems dealing with extra numbers and the resultant financial pressures put on many public services. No doubt Peterborough faces a very similar set of challenges.

The impact of population growth on police services needs to be recognised, so it is only right for the police authority to be consulted on major spatial plans, for example. Support to secure resources from the planning system to meet the costs of infrastructure development is also important for the policing of the expanding Thames Valley region. All that certainly needs to be looked at. We need to think about whether section 106 money should be used to help support the additional policing infrastructure that will be necessary in the years to come as the population expands. That is worth considering. I know that at this particularly difficult time in the middle of a recession, local authorities are going to guard jealously their income from section 106 money, so it is not going to be a particularly easy nut to crack if the Minister decides to go down that particular avenue.

With the current level of population growth, Thames Valley police estimate that their capital costs for new buildings and so forth will be about £90 million—just to keep pace with the level of services provided now. The chief constable has said that the force will have real problems trying to generate that level of capital receipts, so it looks as though there might be another funding gap in the future. He also estimates that the number of staff, including officers, that Thames Valley will need will have to grow to about 1,200—again just to maintain the current level of policing services.

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I know that there is a link to population in the revenue support grant, but the floors and ceilings apparently mean that minimal additional revenue grant will be generated for the Thames Valley police. That needs to be looked into further. There are also other funding pressures. The Olympics, for example, is clearly going to suck in resources from the Thames Valley, and it would be interesting to hear the Minister explain how that extra resourcing might be handled and what sort of extra support a force such as Thames Valley will be able to get when it has to provide so many police officers for the Olympics.

Counter-terrorism is another important issue. I cannot speak as freely as I would like on this occasion, so all I will say is that a significant threat still remains within the Thames Valley. I know that there is a specific grant for counter-terrorism, for which we are very grateful, but the pressure is likely to get much worse before it gets better. There is the potential for extremism in Reading, Slough, High Wycombe and other centres in the Thames Valley despite all the excellent work that goes on in those local areas to combat the threat.

I have recently been critical of the detection rates of the Thames Valley police. It is actually one of the worst- performing authorities in the country in that respect. We are not doing well, and that needs to be said. However, I say it as a friend, albeit a critical friend, of the Thames Valley police. The force is doing many things particularly well, but there is enormous room for improvement on detection rates.

I would like to say that we have a particularly good team in Reading, made up of active, responsive and forward-thinking officers, and I would like to repeat the praise I expressed in last week’s Westminster Hall debate for Superintendent Steve Kirk, who does a quite outstanding job across my Reading, East constituency. I have also been very pleased by the roll-out of neighbourhood policing in my constituency. It has the potential to make a real difference over time, particularly if it is coupled with a drive to reduce red tape and bureaucracy.

The impact of all the extra money that has gone into policing over the years has to some extent been dissipated because police officers spend less and less of their time on the street performing their front-line duties. There is way too much bureaucracy put upon police officers. I have heard that from them first hand. Like many colleagues, I have been out on my mountain bike with officers in Reading, East; I have been out in the town centre in a van, and I have spoken to officers. They have told me many stories. For example, I heard about an officer arresting a shoplifter at 9.30 in the morning and then having to write off the entire shift while he processed that one person through the system. There are, of course, many more such examples that I am sure colleagues could add. If we could sort out those problems, we could get more return on the investment we make in police officers. In turn, that would massively improve the prospects of neighbourhood policing making an impact.

As I said earlier, I am not asking for more money. I do not think that the Thames Valley police actually need any more money today, but they may well need money in the near future. Any support in the particular areas I mentioned would, I am sure, be very welcome to the chief constable of Thames Valley police.

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