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Party Conferences (Police Costs)

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 11 January 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Greg Knight.]

10.16 pm

The issue that I raise is of importance to Bournemouth, Brighton and Blackpool and the three respective counties. Those three resorts are the only ones that can provide adequate facilities for the two main party annual conferences. Although, for obvious reasons, most of the detail in my speech will concentrate on Blackpool and Lancashire, the same points apply equally to Brighton and Bournemouth.

I have received several messages of support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. Like me, they are concerned about the costs of policing those annual conferences falling on ratepayers. The poll tax will make the situation even worse. The method of gearing will make that additional spending—if the Government deem it part of a total overspending—will cause an unacceptable increase in poll tax. My case is simple. Those costs should be funded 100 per cent. from national resources.

In Tuesday's Lancashire Evening Telegraph, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is quoted as saying in a letter to the Home Secretary:
"County councillors felt a 'sense of injustice' that the county should get no special help with the cost of policing the conference."
That is also the feeling of ratepayers in Lancashire.

I make it clear that I am not opposed to security arrangements being made. It is regrettable that terrorism has made increased security necessary in so many aspects of our lives over recent years. The tragic events in Brighton in October 1984 all too clearly remind hon. Members of the problem. I do not believe that terrorism or violence helps the cause for which people are fighting, and it often does exactly the reverse. It is important to make it clear that I do not regard the debate as party political. A reply to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) on 10 November 1989, at column No. 805 of Hansard, shows that this year's additional costs were £4,000 in Sussex for the Labour conference at Brighton, and £1·08 million in Lancashire for the Conservatives' conference at Blackpool.

Those figures will be reversed when the Labour party is in government. I could argue that there will not be a complete reversal—that the Labour party's figure may not go as high as that of the Conservatives or that the figure for the Conservatives will not go as low as the present Labour party figure—but that would be a hypothetical point and I do not want to be sidetracked from the main case that I am making. I appreciate that whichever party is in government or in opposition, however regrettable it may be, we must continue to provide security to avoid a repeat of the tragic events of 1984.

The Official Report shows that, since 1985, I have raised this issue on various occasions and in various ways. I have not been alone in doing so, although I have perhaps been the most persistent. The record shows that the issue has been pursued from both sides of the House; it is important to recognise that. I have also pursued the matter in correspondence with the Home Office and with the Department of the Environment.

Lancashire county council has taken up the matter by letter and by way of delegations. The issue has also been raised in the other House—for example, on 1 November last when it was raised by my noble Friend Lord Taylor of Blackburn. The exchange appears at columns 78 to 80 of the Official Report of the other place. The Minister's final comment in that exchange was "Bad luck." Bad luck it is for Lancashire, Dorset and Sussex, but the Government must think again and do something to rectify the position.

The last letter that I received from the Minister of State, Home Office, Lord Ferrers, was dated 6 December 1989 and he enclosed a copy of a letter to Brian Hill, the chief executive of Lancashire county council. The crux of the response was that no progress had been made, and he added:
"the Home Secretary and I have further considered the position but consider that the normal police funding arrangements should be retained in this instance."
That is why I have initiated tonight's debate. Giving the matter further consideration is not good enough. We want a change of policy and a fair deal for our ratepayers, who should not have to pick up the tab for policing the conferences.

This year's Conservative party conference will be at Bournemouth, and the estimated cost is £2 million. It is early days and it is pointless at this stage to consider the detail of that figure. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who supports the case that I am making tonight, has also pursued the issue over the years. He, too, received a letter from Lord Ferrers, dated 22 December 1989, in which the Minister said that he had agreed to meet Dorset county council representatives about this year's conference. While the letter contained some sympathetic words, the Minister ended by saying yet again:
"we see no grounds for departing from normal police funding arrangements in this case."
Before giving more details about Lancashire, and to avoid leaving Brighton too much on one side, I should mention that column 200 of the Official Report for 14 April 1988 contains a written answer to a question from me about additional policing costs for the 1988 Conservative party conference at Brighton of £1·4 million. Sussex, too, is right to be concerned about this matter, as I know it is.

Lancashire county council representatives met the Home Secretary in London in December 1985. They met another Minister in Blackpool in October 1987. Both meetings were unsuccessful. Requests in November 1987 and February 1988 to meet the Home Secretary were rejected. In July of last year, they met the Minister of State, Lord Ferrers. There was a negative response at that meeting, and subsequent correspondence was reported to the Lancashire police committee only early today.

In addition to being concerned about the financial implications, the county police committee is also worried about the policing effects on the rest of the county. That must also be a matter of concern to hon. Members. After all, the conference reduced police numbers in the rest of Lancashire. The committee made that point clearly to the Home Office in a letter dated 24 October last:
"In the run up to, and during the Conference, policing levels in areas outside Blackpool are seriously depleted. In view of their duty to secure the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police force, the Committee are concerned at this falling off in manning levels and the way in which the ratepayers are deprived of an adequate police service which they have paid for through the rates. Thus the ratepayer is not receiving the service that has been paid for, and in addition is expected to find more money to meet the cost of protecting the Government".
I must emphasise again that this is not a political point. Indeed, the final part of the letter states that that protection is necessary irrespective of the party in government at the time.

Some people will argue that the resorts get the benefit of holding the conference in terms of full hotels, bar takings and the other income that arises from spending during conference week. I shall leave that point aside for the moment, but even if it is true, it certainly does not benefit Burnley, Accrington, Nelson or Blackburn, for example, but we also have to pay an additional rate and from this year an extra amount in poll tax to meet that cost. I am sure that the Minister will accept that the areas in the further parts of the county do not benefit from the conference being held at Blackpool.

To return to the resorts themselves, Blackpool could certainly argue that, with its lights and other attractions, it would be full in any event, without the conference being held there. I am sure that the same could be argued for Bournemouth and Brighton. There is therefore no advantage—

May I confirm that the view in Bournemouth is that we certainly lose money as a result of a Government conference? We do not gain money—quite the reverse is true. The hon. Gentleman quoted a figure of £2 million, but may I advise him that £2·7 million is being provided by the county council for this year's conference?

The hon. Gentleman has supported my case. Indeed, it could be argued that a disadvantage arises from the police and security arrangements that are necessary and from the disruption that arises. I am all too aware of the difficulties of getting through Blackpool when the roads are sealed off. I know that those problems cause friction to residents and visitors alike because of the heavy policing and security arrangements during the conference period. Therefore, it could be argued that rather than the conferences being an advantage, we have reached the stage where they are becoming a disadvantage.

In 1985, when the Labour conference was held in Bournemouth, a large car park and swimming pool adjacent to the conference centre were closed because of the security arrangements. I know that that was not popular in Bournemouth. We should not fall into the trap of believing that those resorts will for ever have open arms in welcoming our conferences. I should stress that, although the figures involved are considered large at local level, in terms of Government spending they are small. We are not asking for much. A concession on this matter would remove one small thorn from the Government's side—and it is a small thorn in relation to the many large and real problems that they have at present.

I turn to some of the details of the costs involved. Security at the Winter Gardens and the conference centre hotel in Blackpool cost £560,000 in overtime; overtime in the rest of the county cost £187,000 as the police tried to make up their minimum policing level across the county and planning overtime cost £56,500. There were also various other costs, including £10,000 for the hire of a helicopter for security from the Metropolitan police. All those costs were included in a supplementary estimate, and I believe that the Government do not like local authorities to have supplementary estimates.

Lancashire, Dorset and Sussex have a valid case. I hope that the Minister will be prepared to give some real thought to making a change in policy and giving a fair deal to the ratepayers of those counties. I hope that he will undertake to meet those costs in full in future years.

10.28 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for allowing me to speak briefly in his Adjournment debate. I am speaking on behalf of my hon. Friends the Members for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans), for my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell), and for my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) and for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind), who are all in their places.

Lancashire folk are not mean. On the contrary, they are very generous. They do not want "summat for nowt", as we say locally, but they want fair play. My constituents believe, as I do, that there are now strong reasons why there should be an increased contribution from central Government towards the cost of policing the party conference of the governing party.

The cost of security is now out of all proportion to any benefits that staging such a major event might bring to such an area. There are certainly no benefits to ratepayers outside the immediate area of the conference, which itself might benefit from additional visitors. Even Blackpool residents might argue that, while the conference brings some additional trade, the sheer size of the security operation deters visitors who might otherwise have visited the resort. The position is aggravated by the fact that ratepayers have less police coverage during the conference. They are paying more to get less.

Many of my constituents are facing financial problems. They are unhappy with the Government for introducing the community charge and with the Labour county council for overspending by £11 million, thereby making the community charge so much higher than it should be—£250 instead of £181. Many of them will face real difficulties in paying that bill. If the Minister were to accept our arguments tonight and allow fairness to prevail, that would give at least a little help to my constituents and give a signal that we understand the problems that they face.

10.31 pm

The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) have drawn attention to the considerable costs of providing security at conferences of political parties, especially of the party in government. That concern is shared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir P. Blaker), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre (Mr. Mans), for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind), for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill), all of whom are here this evening but who, because of time constraints, cannot intervene in the debate.

The costs arise from the increased risk during recent years of terrorist attack. The hon. Member for Burnley suggested that additional financial assistance should be made available to the police authorities of the counties concerned. As he has clearly and ably explained, he believes that it is unreasonable to expect individual police authorities to meet costs on that scale. He also believes that the costs are national rather than local in origin.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Government have considered the position carefully on a number of occasions. I am sure that, although he will be disappointed, he will not be surprised when I say that the Government remain of the view that normal police funding arrangements should continue to apply.

In recent years we have received a number of representations from local councils and hon. Members—not least from the hon. Gentleman, who I know feels strongly about the matter and has pursued it with persistence. Those representations have concerned, in particular, the conferences held by the Government party. Local authorities, with the support of hon. Members, have asked that the additional costs of policing party conferences be met from Government funds. The most recent representations have been made to my right hon. Friend on behalf of Lancashire, where the Conservative party conference was held last year, and of Dorset, where the conference will be held next year.

The cost of policing party conferences has risen considerably during recent years, especially with the conferences of the party that is in government. As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, that is because the level of threat has particularly increased for members of the Government. However, other parties' conference policing costs have also grown. The load is spread to some degree by the fact that the Conservative conference is held at different venues from year to year, but as the number of places with suitable conference facilities is limited, the burden does fall upon a small number of police authorities.

As matters presently stand, in considering applications from police authorities for additional financial assistance, the Home Secretary must take account of the financial and constitutional arrangements that apply to policing in England and Wales. The Government pay the police specific grant—currently at the rate of 51 per cent.—on all expenditure by police authorities for a police purpose. The remaining 49 per cent. is partly contributed by the ratepayer—or the community charge payer as it will be from 1 April 1990. But here too central Government may make a major contribution through block grant.

Block grant varies from area to area and from year to year because it is based on need. It is not hypothecated to particular functions; local authorities are free to decide how to allocate their resources between services. Taken together, police specific grant and block grant make a substantial contribution to policing costs from central Government funds.

These generous arrangements are designed to cover the whole range of policing. Occasionally, additional payments have been made. That has occurred only in cases where the costs have been both exceptional and unforeseen: exceptional, because expenditure has been so excessive that the efficiency of the force is threatened by the scale of the costs involved; unforeseen in the sense that the police authority was not able to budget for the expenditure. Those factors, however, clearly do not apply in the case of the additional costs of policing party conferences; those costs are foreseeable and can be planned for.

The police authorities concerned argue that local communities should not have to contribute financially to an event which falls to their area by chance and is really only of national interest. I understand, and to some extent sympathise with, that line of reasoning. Party conferences are, however, far from being the only events which could be claimed as primarily national in significance. Most police authorities might make similar claims in other circumstances.

This can happen, for example, in relation to protection of members of the royal family, protection of Ministers, policing of one-off but regularly recurring events such as the Stonehenge summer solstice, and certain types of police activity such as prevention of terrorism, controls at ports, which are expensive, or investigation of drugs-related offences or other major crimes.

What will happen if Bournemouth, Blackpool and Brighton simply say that it is not worthwhile? Will the Government simply say that we cannot have conferences there?

Due to the way that the police grant provides for them, those particular towns will not say that they cannot hold the conferences. More than half of it comes directly from central Government and up to 49 per cent. is spread over the whole of the county and is not met by the town. Therefore, the town's interest or otherwise in having the conference—which is entirely a matter for its residents—cannot be primarily determined by where police costs are paid.

Does my hon. Friend accept that by no means all the costs incurred are police costs? For example, in Bournemouth we face substantial costs for lifting manholes so that they can be inspected and then sealed, providing barriers, closing down facilities which are owned by the local authority and sometimes closing down shops and adjoining hotels for long periods. Those are not police costs, are not covered by the police grant or, in relation to local authority expenditure, by our standard spending assessments. In the two boroughs that I represent our SSA has fallen substantially.

I understand that line of reasoning, but many costs, not merely those associated with party conferences, fall to particular authorities at certain times. It could well be argued that those costs could be borne nationally if the same arguments used by my hon. Friend were employed in those cases.

It is a fundamental principle of our present policing arrangements that central and local government share responsibility for the police service and its costs. They do this not by separating out particular functional areas, but by sharing all costs, whether supposedly national or supposedly local. Thus, while the ratepayer may contribute to the costs of some things which could be argued to be national, the Exchequer contributes 51 per cent. at least—more if any block grant is involved—to police costs, even when it could be argued that those were local in origin.

It would be impractical to attempt to determine case by case which costs are local and which national. To single out a few cases, such as party conferences and the associated expenses would be less than fair. But to attempt to define all costs as either local or national would necessitate a complex and costly bureucratic mechanism. It would also mean potentially fundamental changes to our present policing structure under the Police Act 1964.

The level of central assistance with police costs generally was stepped up in 1986. In that year, police specific grant was increased from 50 per cent. to 51 per cent. That was done in recognition of the increasing burdens faced by police authorities and police forces, including those arising from terrorism. The measure has had a significant impact on police authorities. It has enabled them to recruit up to establishment and to meet rising costs.

The additional costs of policing the Conservative party conference in Blackpool in 1989 were—I understand—estimated by the police authority at £1·1 million. That was around 1·6 per cent. of the police budget of £96·8 million as notified to the Home Office for grant purposes. It compares with the costs of the conference in 1987, which were £829,000, or around 1 per cent. of the police budget. Lancashire has received some £3·4 million in additional police grant since 1986 arising from the increase in the rate of grant in that year, while its conference policing costs since then have added up to around £1·9 million.

The additional costs of policing the conference held at Brighton in 1988 were some £1 million, about 2 per cent. of the Sussex police budget for 1988–89. The additional police grant received by Sussex resulting from the increase to 51 per cent. has added up to about £2·1 million between 1986 and the end of the last financial year.

The additional costs of policing the Conservative party conference held in Bournemouth in 1986 were estimated at around £700,000, which was around 2 per cent. of the Dorset police budget for that year. The additional police grant received by Dorset, since the increase to 51 per cent. in 1986, has been around £1·4 million to date.

I have very little time and I wish to make a few more remarks so, if my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman will excuse me, I shall carry on.

I accept that the costs of increased security at party conferences, particularly those of the Government party, represent an additional burden on the police resources of the areas concerned. As I have explained, however, there has been an improvement in the police grant position, which helps the authorities concerned with increased costs of this nature.

I know that there is also concern about the effects which an event of this kind has on manpower levels in the area concerned. Police officers deployed to policing the conference cannot be on duty elsewhere in the force area. This, however, would be the case with any major demand which fell on any police force. The chief constable has to decide how best to deploy his officers so as to provide the best practicable cover throughout his force area.

Party conferences are central to the well-being of our democracy. It could not possibly be argued that they should be cancelled in order to reduce the burden on our police. That would be unacceptable, and would be seen as a victory for terrorism.

We have several times considered the suggestion that the Government should provide additional assistance from central funds for policing party conferences. For the reasons that I have given, we do not believe that these costs should be treated differently from other police costs.

There probably remain three or four minutes—I am checking with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick)—so there is time for me to give way to at least one of my hon. Friends.

My hon. Friend talked about increased police funding. That is greatly appreciated, and we all accept that it helps to keep our county of Lancashire well ordered. However, all other police authorities receive the same additional funding. We spend our additional funding on policing not only the Conservative conference every two years but the Labour party conference, too, as the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) said. We are faced with additional costs more frequently than every other year: it happens every year. Therefore, the costs are more devastating to us in Lancashire. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to think again.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend says—it is an extra cost for the police authority in his area—but if he thinks about it, he will see that every police authority could make substantial claims for exceptional costs, whether it be, as I mentioned earlier, the cost of ports or of a particular drug problem. There are particular additional expenses that different police authorities must bear. In most cases, they would claim that they stem not just from local concerns but from ones that have a national significance as well.

Can my hon. Friend point out one event that another police authority has to bear every year, or every other year, of the same financial magnitude as the party conference at Blackpool?

I have pointed out some that create a similar regular problem, but I cannot approximate costs on the spur of the moment at the Dispatch Box. However, some of those that I have mentioned are extremely expensive and I would be happy to give my hon. Friend some figures in due course.

We recognise that policing is the responsibility of central and local government and the Home Office meets the larger percentage of police authority expenditure through the police grant. That was increased in 1986, so it is more now that it was several years ago.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn and others who have intervened for raising the issue, which I know is important to them and to their local authority, and for giving me the opportunity to restate the Government's position.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.