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4 Feb 2009 : Column 884
2.56 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I express my sincere apologies for not being present at the commencement of the debate— [Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that I have been busy writing my speech. [Interruption.] In fact, I have been delayed by the vicissitudes of National Express East Coast in travelling down from my constituency.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the police grant settlement for 2009-10. I pay tribute to my local police force, the Cambridgesire constabulary, and particularly to the northern basic command unit, which covers my constituency, under the leadership of Chief Superintendent Andy Hebb. They are all doing a very difficult job on behalf of my constituents.

I want to talk about the very real funding difficulties experienced by the Cambridgeshire constabulary. Members will know that I have raised the issue on a number of occasions and that I was fortunate enough to secure a Westminster Hall debate in February last year on police funding in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire. Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, along with Kent and Lincolnshire, are in a parlous financial position. They urgently need a review of their formula allocation for the next financial year as well as, I would argue, a review for 2010-11. The allocations should be reviewed as a result of a unique set of circumstances, which I will outline to provide some background.

Cambridgeshire is to receive a 3 per cent. increase in its formula funding allocation in 2009-10, despite the fact that it has the third lowest number of police officers per head of population in the whole of England and Wales. In the northern basic command unit, incorporating my constituency, we have actually a seen a fall in the number of full-time equivalent police officers over the last six years. Indeed, the Minister provided that information in a parliamentary answer to me on 29 January, which appears in column 828W of Hansard. A table shows a fall from 215 officers per 100,000 people in 2003 to 178 in the last financial year.

Hon. Members will be aware of my consistent lobbying over a number of years for fairer funding for Cambridgeshire. I will not rehearse all the arguments that I raised in the Adjournment debate, at which the Minister was present, but it would be apposite to refer to a number of them today, because in many respects we have not moved forward over the last year.

Cambridgeshire has been among the five worst-funded police authorities in the last six years. Like other police authorities, it will be asked to bear real-terms cuts over the next two years at least, as well as general inflationary pressure and Home Office edicts in respect of efficiency savings, first outlined in the comprehensive spending review of 2007. As the Minister will know, the authority has little effective discretion to alter that dismal situation within the prevailing capping regime.

I commend to the House an excellent report published in November 2007, entitled “The changing demography of Cambridgeshire: implications for policing”. It focused on the specific demographic, social, economic and cultural changes that face the county over the next 10 years or so, including population changes, migration from both within and outside the United Kingdom, growth in higher education numbers, issues involving Gypsies and travellers, and tourism, which is, of course, a particular issue in the Cambridge area.

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Today, however, I wish to focus on the practical impact of migration—specifically European Union migration—on my constituency and throughout Cambridgeshire, its particular impact on crime and policing, and the financial impact that that will inevitably involve. I recently met a member of the police authority who explained to me that if a police officer in Peterborough stops an individual from, say, Lithuania or the Czech Republic in connection with the committing of a possible offence—or, indeed, if that person has been the victim of a crime—the need for translation and interpretation services can double or treble the time that it takes to process the individual.

Cambridgeshire constabulary’s recent briefing to the Migration Impacts Forum, published last month, illustrates the significance of that example. In every month of the calendar year to 31 December 2008, with the exception of January and June, more than 20 per cent. of detainees processed through the custody suite in the northern basic command unit were non-UK citizens. In the last year, across the whole force, 800 Lithuanians, more than 700 Poles and 300 Portuguese citizens have been processed, most of whom spoke little or—usually—no English.

Use of Language Line, a telephone translation and interpretation service, increased last year from an average of 373 calls per month to 497 per month in the period up to November 2008. In the last financial year Cambridgeshire spent £1 million on translation and interpretation services, whereas in 2002 it spent only £224,000. Moreover, 50 per cent. of detainees questioned about drink-driving and disqualified driving offences in the northern basic command unit were non-UK citizens, while 84 per cent. of the 213 warrants issued by the magistrates courts in Peterborough for minor offences were issued for EU nationals.

Ministers have known for at least three years about the impact of large-scale immigration on policing but have failed to reflect it in their funding allocations, despite the promises to listen and act delivered by this Minister, his predecessors and, indeed, Home Secretaries during Home Office questions over those three years. I concede that this is, not to put too fine a point on it, more a cock-up than a conspiracy. I do not agree that it is necessarily an issue of whether a police authority is in a predominantly Conservative or a predominantly Labour area. However, Ministers are not listening. Despite visits to Peterborough and visits by delegations consisting of senior police authority members and the chief constable, nothing has been done. Indeed, we are going backwards.

As I made clear in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), these funding decisions are based on completely flawed population estimates, and Ministers have failed to act to correct them. On 27 November 2007, in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the then immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), said that funding to 2010 would continue to be based on 2004 sub-national population data

That is not the basis on which to make these funding decisions, because the methodology and the data are flawed.

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As was rightly pointed out by the chief constable of Cambridgeshire, Julie Spence, in evidence to the Select Committee:

Similar views were expressed by the Local Government Association in its November 2007 report “Estimating the scale and impacts of immigration at the local level”, and in a report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs in the 2007-08 Session entitled “The Economic Impact of Immigration”.

According to the recent Migration Impacts Forum report, the tragic murder of a young Polish man in Peterborough in September last year

It gives one simple example, which is that

The House can imagine how resource-intensive that process was for a force that is already under-provisioned in terms of front-line police officers.

Even without those specific migration factors, Cambridgeshire will be struggling to deliver the police service that local people deserve and need. In 2007, the Association of Police Authorities estimated that the current comprehensive spending review funding regime would result in a funding shortfall across the country of at least £831 million. In a report prepared for the police authority 18 months ago, the management consultants KPMG concluded on the basis of the Cambridgeshire constabulary’s current work load that the county required at least an extra 100 officers. Let me put in context how badly underfunded my local constabulary is: just to achieve the average funding and provision of front-line officers for England and Wales, Cambridgeshire would need at least 600 more police officers, at a significant revenue cost.

Despite warm words from the Minister, who is an agreeable chap—I think we can all agree on that—and several deputations from the police authority and the chief constable, we are no further forward this year. The Government continue to undercount population numbers and to underfund core police service activity. Cambridgeshire is losing more than £2 million per annum, which has a major year-on-year cumulative effect, as a result of the funding floors. The force has the fourth lowest number of police staff per head of population in England and Wales. The 2010-11 pay deals, amounting to about 2.5 per cent., mean that it will experience a real-terms cash decrease.

I have not even discussed Cambridgeshire’s capital programme. The £1.5 million to be allocated to the force in the next financial year will be only just enough to cover the vehicle replacement programme; it will not cover other key projects, such as the rebuilding of police stations in Parkside, Cambridge and Huntingdon. We are not demanding extra funds for fashionable budget headings such as protective services and counter-terrorism, or the Olympics. Thank goodness, we do not have a major problem with knife crime, gangs and guns; we do, however, require fairness and equity.

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For too long, Cambridgeshire’s pleas have been ignored and the police authority short-changed, and our dedicated and professional police officers on the front line protecting us have been forced to do much more for much less. This situation is unfair, intolerable, iniquitous and ultimately unsustainable. It cannot go on. My constituents deserve better, as do those of other Cambridgeshire Members. I hope the Minister is listening, and that, for once, we have action and not just words.

3.10 pm

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): This has been an interesting and informed debate. Several Members passionately expressed their feelings about policing issues, especially the current grant settlement. In common with many contributors, I would first like to record my congratulations and praise for the work police officers do not only in my constituency, but across the country. It is always humbling to go out with the police and see the work they do at the sharp end, often in difficult circumstances. It is important to recognise that in the context of this debate, which, by necessity, focuses on funding streams rather than the practical work the police do throughout the country in protecting us and providing safety to the communities we represent.

This debate has, of course, focused heavily on the grant settlement. It is important to recognise the changing funding arrangements and the shift in burden from direct central Government grant to local authority precept. In 1997, direct grant represented 85 per cent. of forces’ revenue, but in 2006-07 the figure had fallen to 60 per cent. Therefore, an increasing proportion of the funds going to our police forces is coming from council tax payers in our areas rather than from direct grant. It is important to recognise the amount of funding that is coming directly from council tax payers, rather than from central Government.

There have been some good and important contributions to the debate, and I wish to place on record my congratulations to the Home Affairs Committee on the work it undertakes in putting a number of important issues into the public domain, and thereby informing the general discussion and ensuring that relevant matters are given the attention they deserve. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) raised some important issues—for instance, alcohol-related crime, which he and I have debated on several previous occasions. I certainly recognise the link between alcohol and violent crime and the pressures our police forces have to withstand, and the difficulties and challenges they face, in the early hours of the morning. In that context, there is an issue to do with pricing, and the right hon. Gentleman covered it well in his contribution.

In terms of funding arrangements and the efficient use of resources, Government, and particularly Home Office, IT projects are of relevance. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East made an important point about the funding and status of the police portal and the dispute around the contract associated with that. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some further light on those issues when he responds to our debate. Other IT projects also deserve further scrutiny, such as the Pentip computer system intended to register penalty notices for disorder and other policing matters, which is over budget and running late. It is important that we get good value for money and that procurement issues are dealt with appropriately.

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The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) made important points on procurement and ensuring that we get good value for money and have efficiencies. I think that is recognised in all parts of the House, as is the importance of forces being able to share in certain aspects of procurement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) rightly highlighted the challenges facing many rural police forces, and in particular how population flows caused by tourism can have a big impact on the ability to police. The problems he raised to do with tourism and swells in population are shared by a number of police forces.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made the important point that we should recognise the work of those officers who ensure safety in our community, and he commented that his area of Dyfed-Powys had been made a safer place. He also said that we must look to the future, and at the review of the funding formula, to which the Minister alluded in his opening remarks.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) highlighted the issue of officer retention and some of the challenges in terms of the relationships between police forces, particularly in the areas surrounding London. We look forward with interest to the continuing discussions of the Police Negotiating Board on south-east allowances, which are of direct relevance to a number of Members who have made contributions; the Minister mentioned this.

My hon. Friend also made some important points about counter-terrorism and the Olympics budget. We look forward to receiving further details from the Minister on that budget. Some scrutiny needs to be applied, and we need to have a better understanding of the Government’s position and of the costs and impact of all that on police forces throughout the country and their budgets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) is passionate about the issues facing his Cambridgeshire area. His comments reflect those of the chief constable, Julie Spence, on the difficulties and challenges in respect of movements of population and whether the funding formula adequately takes them into account, particularly as it is based on information that dates back to 2004.

Clearly, this discussion is part of a wider debate on the comprehensive spending review, and it is interesting to note that when the first police funding grant was settled, Tim Brain, chief constable of Gloucestershire police and the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on finance, made the following prescient point:

His comments then are equally relevant now in terms of some of the pressures and challenges police forces have to address and the fact that those challenges are changing and growing. We have heard about the pressures in relation to the growth of different communities and new communities arising, one of which is translation costs; according to Freedom of Information Act information, in the last financial year the cost to police forces throughout the country is about £25 million.
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That cost has risen significantly in the past five years, probably by about two thirds. It is also worth remembering that additional policing pressures arise from this.

It would be useful to hear from the Minister about the context and framework of the review of the police funding formula. What will the parameters of that review be, and to what extent will it take into account changes in population and the practical impact that has on police forces and how they manage their budgets? I hope he will be able to give more details when he responds to the debate, and to confirm the timing of the review, whether he expects to publish interim findings, and how this will interrelate with the next comprehensive spending round. That will be important in informing the debate, and in explaining how things will link with the funding arrangements for the police as we move towards the next comprehensive spending review.

A number of different factors are putting increasing pressures on the police. As, sadly, we all know, there is a downturn in the economy, with an accompanying risk of an increase in volume acquisitive crime. The Home Office appears to have recognised and accepted that this will lead to an increase in crime, although we are getting some mixed messages from the Home Secretary about whether she agrees with that perspective. I am thinking of the leaked memo that indicated that the Home Office was expecting a rise. Will the Minister confirm whether he agrees with the memorandum or with the view of the Home Secretary that there might not be such a rise? There are also other pressures—not simply direct burglaries and frauds, which have been focused on, but emerging threats. He knows the interest that I take in the growth in cybercrime and internet crime—the different types of emerging problems that are complex and technical and for which there have been few prosecutions under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. We need to address the reliance on forensics and how dealing with that type of criminality will need to feed into and inform future funding arrangements because of the additional pressures that it will place on policing; we need to respond to the changing nature of the threats that emerge.

The Flanagan review made an important point about the pressures on policing; it said that the current level of policing numbers was unsustainable. Notwithstanding the fact that police strength numbers remained flat, according to the last figures, will the Minister say whether he agrees with Sir Ronnie’s view that police force numbers are unsustainable? If he does, will he say what assessment he is making of any reductions that might apply and how that fits into the context of the current settlement and, indeed, future ones?

This important debate has given many hon. Members the opportunity to highlight the financing challenges and problems that may be faced in ensuring greater safety in their communities. We look forward to hearing further details on the funding formula and on how the Minister intends to review and reform it to ensure that it provides for, and reflects the needs of, our communities and is responsive to changes in threat, in population and in need. We look forward to continuing the debate in the months ahead.

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