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11 Jun 2009 : Column 309WH—continued

2.56 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), on his usual excellent work. I have already heard him speak on policing once this week. He is always assiduous in chasing issues in Parliament that relate to his Committee’s work. I also congratulate the members of the Committee on their contribution.

The report is a superb example of exactly what Select Committees are supposed to be about. It is a tour de force, if you will excuse the pun, Mr. Williams. It looks ahead at the policing issues that will be relevant in the 21st century. Select Committees are good at producing such work. I declare an interest as someone who has been a member of the Children, Schools and Families Committee, which was formerly the Education and Skills Committee, for most of the past eight years, so I have seen the process from that side of the fence. Select Committees are excellent because their reports are largely impartial. Obviously politics gets in the way sometimes but by and large, in my experience, including from reading reports by Committees with which I was not directly involved, Committees tend to avoid the pitfall of politicisation. They tend to be impartial and to fulfil the hope that was behind them when they were set up in their strengthened form in the great reform of 1979.

Select Committee reports are not Government reports—the information is not obscured by or filtered through the Government or the civil service—and they are not Opposition reports that are written purely for political purposes. Committees take a huge raft of evidence from expert witnesses of every variety. For example, a section of the Home Affairs Committee’s report deals with alcohol. Although the Committee heard from the alcohol trade, which obviously had a certain point of view on minimum pricing and controls on pubs, it also heard from the police, community bodies and local authorities. Committees produce excellent, up-to-date summaries of expert opinion on issues, and their reports are presented coherently and concisely. They provide ammunition for a two-hour parliamentary debate such as this, but they will also be referred to over and again for years to come. This report will be referred to every time policing is raised in Parliament, during elections and in the press. Select Committee reports rumble on for many years after they are produced.

As I said, the report is an excellent, outstanding example of what Select Committees do so well. There is a lot of talk at the moment about reforming how this
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place works, and we have heard various suggestions even in the last day or two about how to strengthen Select Committees. I hope that we go a long way down that path so that Select Committees can better fulfil their potential.

I will not try to cover every aspect of the report—the Chair of the Committee, in his excellent summary, could only scratch the surface—but I will pick out some things that particularly stood out for me. One, which has already been referred to, was the general issue of targets and expectations for the police in the 21st century, the situation on which has been both improved and worsened by the advent of modern communications, the internet and rapid communication such as e-mail.

People now expect a much faster, if not instantaneous, response. They send a complaint by text message or e-mail to their beat officer at the appropriate address and want an immediate response. MPs have had the same experience, as the volume of casework has increased massively for MPs and councillors in local government. It has put a lot of extra pressure on the police. In some ways, that is quite right, because it makes the police more accountable, but in other ways it raises people’s expectations and they can be easily disappointed.

There is a danger that some legislative changes concerning community calls for action are creating more expectations for the police—and on local councillors in partnership—to do something. If the residents of a council ward make a community call for action, they want the police and local authority to do something immediately. If the resources are not there and the police cannot respond immediately, there will be disappointment. Those issues are highlighted in the section of the Committee report dealing with what the police do, what is expected of them, what targets are being set for them by central Government, and what local residents are demanding.

One interesting point about recorded crime that stands out is the question whether the crime situation is getting worse. All the statistics tell us that the position on crime is getting better. Page 10 of the report cites an interesting statistic.

It is instructive to bear those bald statistics in mind. Crime rose steadily in the UK and the western world from the 1950s onwards—it did not particularly matter who was in government. The Conservatives were in government for 13 years from 1951 to 1964. In the later ’60s, there was a Labour Government, and then there was the Conservatives again, then Labour and then the Conservatives for 18 years. Now we have had Labour for 12 years. However, crime figures went up steadily—with some dramatic jumps, as in the 1980s—for the best part of half a century in the western world and the UK. Across the western world, they have tended to level off or decrease, as with the famous example of New York, which some people attribute directly to zero-tolerance policing and others simply explain by pointing out, “Well, you’ve got a change in age demographic in the population of the USA, and crime has gone down all over the country, regardless of whether there has been the zero-tolerance approach of New York policing.” When we try to apply those lessons to English policing,
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we need to bear those statistics in mind, rather than following the knee-jerk reactions in the headlines. The newspapers tell us that we are in the midst of the worst crime wave ever, even though the statistics, as evidenced in the report, do not bear that out.

Equally, the report asked the valid question whether we can always trust the stats. The public certainly do not. As the report points out, only a few months ago, in 2008, we discovered that some police forces had not been recording certain types of criminal offence in the right category, which meant that the number of crimes of serious violence, far from falling, should have jumped by 20 per cent. That was due simply to errors or differences in how police forces collected the stats.

That situation makes the clear case that we must take the collection and presentation of statistics on sensitive issues such as crime out of the hands of the Government—they must not be seen to be political or be changed for political purposes—and put that into the hands of an independent body. In that way, I hope, we would get to a point at which the public and the media would trust the stats, instead of saying, as the public so often do, “Well, your statistics might show that crime has been falling fairly steadily, but we don’t believe it. We think it’s much worse—although not around here.” As the report points out, people say that they think the crime situation is quite good where they live, but that it is generally bad. It is the same for education. Lots of people say, “Schools are really bad these days, but the one my children attend is very good”. Indeed, recent surveys show that people say, “Members of Parliament are all crooks, but my local MP is actually quite good.” We need objective statistics in which people can have a bit more trust.

The question of what the police do has been raised. I was struck that the borough commander of Hackney police, Chief Superintendent Steve Dann, asked what the police were there for and what the public and the politicians wanted them to do.

and community outreach. Where is the balance between all those things?

I have a local example of what is happening throughout the country. In the past few months in Derbyshire, we have seen a shift in the enforcement of minor traffic legislation, such as that on parking and so forth, because it has been taken away from the police. They had often said, “We haven’t got the time to do that. We have other, more pressing demands on our attention,” but people in some places were getting irritated that local parking regulations were not being enforced.

As across the country, therefore, enforcement in Derbyshire has gone to the local authorities—the county councils and the boroughs and districts in collaboration—and they have put it out to a private organisation known as the “green giants”, because of their new green uniforms. Since they took over from the police a few months ago, they are much more visible and enforce the rules and regulations more proactively. Some motorists are not happy about that, because they are now being prevented from parking illegally, but lots of residents
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are happy about it, because residents parking and similar measures are now being enforced, whereas before the police would just say, “We haven’t got the time to do that.” Chief Superintendent Steve Dann’s comments are apposite. We need to talk to the public, politicians at all levels and the media to ask what we expect the police to do.

On the issue of Government directives about what the police should do, we see the same tension at a much higher level. On the one hand police forces have been told, “You’ve got to look very carefully to assess crime threats, serious crime and the terrorist threat. You’ve got to have more collaboration”—perhaps involving the super-forces that were mooted but have, thankfully, been dropped recently—“so that you can tackle the most serious forms of crime, like terrorism and organised crime.” On the other hand, we want much more neighbourhood policing and a greater uniformed officer presence out on the streets to tackle what members of the public are most concerned about: low-level, everyday crime such as vandalism, petty nuisance and drunkenness in the streets. We need more clarity on who decides the priorities and to restore much more local control and accountability.

Some of the evidence in the Select Committee’s report made those points extremely well. Brian Paddick, a former assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan police, said:

although they were set with the best of intentions. He continued:

but it is also one point for

If police are getting pressure from the centre as well as from the inspector who assesses police forces—if they are being told, “You’ve got to have so many cases brought to justice. Why are you behind the national average? Why are you behind your target?”—there is an inevitable pressure, as in education with league tables and Ofsted inspections, to work to the target and do the things that tick boxes, even if that is not the best example of how policing should be done in a particular area.

Some might point out that at the time when Brian Paddick gave that evidence, he was the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, but Chief Superintendent Dave Hudson of Essex police made exactly the same point in his evidence. His division

The more serious the offence, the longer it takes to investigate and prosecute, and the more trivial the offence, the easier it is to deal with, but the two get exactly the same weighting. That is a consequence—unforeseen, I am sure—of a Government initiative to hold police forces to account.

How should police forces be held to account? That is where there is a need to go back to local control and accountability, not through the elected sheriff model that the Conservative party talks about, and on which
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its spokesman will doubtless elaborate later, but through locally elected police boards. That is not the macho individual in charge of everything, who gets the headlines and creates a stir, but a more responsive, democratic model, through which the local electorate, rather than distant central Government in London, can hold things to account.

Keith Vaz: I am following what the hon. Gentleman says with great interest. The current system might well be okay, but the problem is the visibility of members of the police authority. The public do not feel that the police are held to account. The system of an elected police authority exists, and individuals are elected or appointed by councillors, who appoint one of their number to the authority—it is usually chaired by a councillor. However, the authority and the people on it are invisible, rather like people on primary care trusts or health authorities. They are on those bodies to represent the public, but the public do not know who they are.

Paul Holmes: I agree absolutely, because that is why some people have said, “What is wrong with the existing police authority board? The structure is already there.” The authorities will now say, “We are making much more effort these days to go and talk to the people in our area.” The Derbyshire police authority does a good job. It has been incredibly proactive in holding parish hall meetings all over Derbyshire to consult the public and explain what is going on. There is now online crime mapping, as well as other initiatives, and a lot of local response and consultation, but how many people turn up to the meetings, and how many feel that they have a direct input?

Most members of the police authority have been appointed in one way or another. Even the third—I think that is the proportion—who are elected councillors have been elected to other authorities, such as the county, district or borough council, and then co-opted on to the police authority. There is no direct line of accountability. That is why we suggest that there should be proper, elected police boards rather than appointed quangos—even if part of the quango is elected in some way. There should be a directly elected and directly accountable authority, but not a single, macho, elected sheriff.

Mr. Ruffley: The hon. Gentleman is giving a very considered précis of Liberal Democrat policy, but just so that I can be clear about this point, would the election to the boards that he describes be by proportional representation? If so, what lessons does he draw from the election of the British National party to various county council seats in the past few days?

Paul Holmes: The first point would be that the election of the BNP to a tiny number of county council seats happened under first past the post, not proportional representation. I do not have any sympathy with the idea that the democratic process should be rigged to exclude certain people, rather than that they should be defeated in democratic argument. People with extreme political views may get elected under any electoral system. As I have said, most of the success of the BNP—it has been very small in the past 10 or 20 years—has happened under first past the post. We cannot change the electoral
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system to prevent people from getting elected. If enough people want to elect a certain group of politicians, that is democracy—it is what democracy is all about. It is the job of politicians in the main parties to put across the arguments and policies to prevent that from happening.

Hywel Williams (in the Chair): Order. Perhaps we can get back to debating the police.

Paul Holmes: I apologise, Mr. Williams, but the matter is directly relevant to the aspect of the Select Committee report that we are discussing and the question of how to get necessary accountability. The Liberal Democrats would want proportional representation for police boards, as for every election, but the question is what sort of proportional representation to use. Opponents always choose the worst example they can think of, such as the Israeli list system or the closed list system for the European Parliament. That is not the method that any sensible person who wants PR would suggest. The single transferable vote that was adopted a few years ago with massive success by New Zealand, which has an English-style democratic system, is exactly what we would propose, not the bad systems that people hold up as an example.

The question of directly elected boards and how to hold the police to account leads on to the section of the Select Committee report about resources and how to finance the police. At the moment, as the report clearly and succinctly explains, most funding for the police, like most instruction for the police, comes from London. We are one of the most centralised countries in the western world. Some 90 per cent. of taxation is raised by No. 11 Downing street. It goes, effectively, to No. 11 Downing street, and is handed out with strings attached. No other western country works in that way. Other countries raise money locally and spend it locally on police, education, health and other things, and need not ask the capital city for permission to do so. We are the exception, as with PR. The Liberal Democrats argue that the resources issue should be dealt with differently, which is why we want locally elected police boards. We do not want them just so they can do what police authorities do now. We are thinking about much more powerful local police authorities with power over the raising of finance.

The Select Committee report sets out clearly why such reform is needed. Although there is variation across the country—I think that the figure is as low as 50 per cent. in Surrey—most police forces, like most local authorities, get anything up to 70 or 75 per cent. of their funding as grant from central Government. Only 20 to 30 per cent. comes from the local council tax precept that the police authority sets. That has led to some immense problems for police forces. I mentioned Surrey, and there was a debate two days ago in Westminster Hall on the Surrey capping issue, during which I managed to make some contributions with reference to the Derbyshire comparison that has already been raised. The Government hand out most of the money, give most of the directives to the police about what they must do, and set most of the targets that they must meet, but they use a formula that they admitted in 2006 was inadequate and unfair, leading them to introduce a new formula based on need. They then said that they could not introduce the new formula, and thus told Derbyshire, “You need
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£5 million more a year if you are to deliver the policing that we, the Government, say you should, but you cannot have it.”

As the Committee’s report points out, some authorities have been even worse hit. It points out that the West Midlands force received nearly 11 per cent.—£48 million—less than the funding formula would have given it in 2007-08, if that formula had been applied. The Government said, “You need all this money, but you cannot have it.” Yet another force, Northumbria, gets 12 per cent. more than it should, according to the central Government funding formula. The system of ceilings and floors—to ensure that change takes place relatively slowly and that all an authority’s surplus money is not taken away immediately to be given to an underfunded one—is understandable if there is a sensible and logical time scale in which the funding schemes are brought together so that everyone is funded equitably. However, that is not happening. It is happening for fire authorities and, to some extent, for local authorities, but not for police authorities.

Quite a number of authorities, including Derbyshire, have been told, “You are badly underfunded and need more money than you get to do your job. When we send inspectors to assess your police force, we will assess you against forces that are being paid more money than they need to do the job, and we will criticise you because you are not doing your job properly, even though you are underfunded. Who is underfunding you? We are—central Government. What can you do about it? Nothing.” That is because if an authority tries, as Derbyshire has done this year with support from MPs and councillors of all three parties, and as Surrey has done, to raise the money from the council tax precept, the Government caps it.

Derbyshire is not being forced to rebill this year, which would waste large amounts of money to save slightly larger amounts, but it is being informed that it will lose the relevant amount next year, so it is being told, “We are not going to take the money off you this year; we’ll take it off you next year.” Derbyshire must lose £1.6 million, but that amounts to 60 front-line police officers losing their jobs to meet the Government’s council tax capping directive. I am not the one who says so; it is Mick Creedon, the chief constable of Derbyshire. Surrey is in an even worse position and other authorities, such as Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, went through the process last year. It is a problem across the board.

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