Skip to main content

Rural Policing: Gloucestershire

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2007

It is a pleasure to be able to discuss rural policing in Gloucestershire. I am glad to be flanked by two Conservative colleagues from the county, my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), although I should not forget the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who has remained in his place from the previous Adjournment debate.

I shall focus on two points. First, I should remind everyone that both the rural and the urban parts of our county need their fair share of policing resources. Secondly, I should draw attention to the financial squeeze that is likely to come from Government funding pressures over the next couple of years. I want to know whether the Minister can help and whether we can start that dialogue and process now.

My starting point is my constituents’ feeling that there is an imbalance between the policing in the urban and the rural parts of the county. The Forest and Gloucester basic command unit has the most officers in the county—336—but the bulk of them are based in Gloucester rather than in the Forest. One thing that irks my constituents and local officers is that those officers are extracted from the Forest of Dean to deal with public order policing in the city of Gloucester, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings. I have been out on patrol with the police, and I have seen how stretched they are when dealing with incidents at those times. They then have a difficult balance in respect of prioritising calls from members of the public.

It is reasonable to expect the deployment of police to be focused, to some extent, on the areas that have the highest levels of crime. Forest’s population is three quarters that of Gloucester, but its crime level is only a quarter of Gloucester’s. I do not expect the level of policing to reflect only the level of population, as to do so would be unreasonable, but to have it entirely determined by the crime level is also not reasonable. People in rural parts of the county and the Forest of Dean pay their fair share of local tax, through the council tax police precept, and of national taxation. They should expect a reasonable level of coverage by the police in terms of response times, beat patrolling and all the things that they should be able to take for granted, as their neighbours who live in Gloucester and Cheltenham are able to do.

We need to examine how this area is managed. Recent parliamentary questions, albeit not ones broken down on a county or constituency basis, have shown that rural crime is rising. Rural parts of the country are not peaceful idylls. Instances of violence against the person rose from slightly fewer than 70,000 crimes in 1998 to slightly fewer than 160,000 in 2005. The rise was more than 100 per cent., which is large even when one takes into account changes in recording methods.

Surveys in my constituency, and I am sure that the same applies in other areas, show that crime, law and order and policing are a key concern—second only to the national health service. People expect those issues to be addressed, and about 60 per cent. of constituents who responded to surveys considered that having more police officers out on the beat patrolling our towns and villages was the best way of addressing them. Such an approach not only deals with crime when it occurs but acts as a deterrent.

I tabled some questions to Ministers on this issue. A recent parliamentary answer by the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety showed that the number of police on the street in Gloucestershire had declined from 593 in 2003 to 456 in 2006. I immediately had an irate chief constable on the phone to me pointing out that those numbers were inaccurate, that the Home Office had changed the basis on which they were calculated and that I was not making a like-for-like comparison between the two years. I hope that the relevant Minister will correct the record and issue accurate figures.

Despite that, only about a third of police officers are out on the streets, as the Home Secretary puts it. The situation makes me wonder what the rest are up to. The increasing bureaucratic requirements are tying up the police and not giving them the chance to do the job that my constituents and the public more generally expect them to do.

I recommend to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) the book by police constable David Copperfield—it is a pseudonym—“Wasting Police Time”. The writer is a serving police officer who spends a great deal of his time

“filing, stapling, and writing forms, reports, statements, e-mails and exhibits.”

He deals with a sea of paperwork, and spends far too little time doing the part of the job that he loves, the bit where he gets to chase criminals and arrest them, which was the reason why he joined the police force and is also what the majority of our constituents want the police to be doing.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key things that the public expect, particularly in rural areas, is high visibility policing? One of the good innovations in that respect was the introduction of police community support officers. Does he agree that it is reprehensible of the Government to resile from their manifesto commitment, which I believe was to put 26,000 PCSOs on the street? Their doing so will mean that Gloucestershire will get 51 fewer PCSOs than it originally thought it would.

My hon. Friend takes me a little further into my speech. I was just coming on to the issue of police officers on the beat, but I want to finish the previous point. It would be helpful if more freedom and flexibility were given to chief constables, and whatever local policing arrangements are in place, to deal with their areas. There should be much less control and direction from central Government.

My hon. Friend mentioned PCSOs. They have worked in safer community teams, and that has been popular and effective. The high visibility patrols in my constituency and others have had an effect on antisocial behaviour. Officers have told me that one of the huge benefits that PCSOs bring by being out on the street and visible, and by building relationships with local shopkeepers, retailers, business people and others, is that they get a significant amount of intelligence, which they are then able to pass back to their colleagues. Such information can be significant in dealing with serious criminal behaviour and it allows people to deal with things before they happen, rather than afterwards, which is what we want. That is valuable.

As my hon. Friend said, it is disappointing that the Government have gone back on their manifesto commitment to provide 24,000 PCSOs nationally and will not give that funding to constabularies. The record shows that that was a personal pledge made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2004. This is another example of Gordon Brown failing to fund the promises that he makes—perhaps that is something that we can look forward to in the future.

Last year, the Government agreed to provide funding for the PCSO target over two years, but in November they decided to keep the total at 16,000, thus abandoning a key plank of the neighbourhood policing strategy. The funding for next year’s PCSOs has been reduced, and therefore the provision for the PCSOs that Gloucestershire was expecting will not arrive. The situation may be even worse than my hon. Friend suggested, because I think that the chief constable had been expecting 74 extra PCSOs. The county will not now get those PCSOs. Out of the money that the Government did make available on PCSOs, they have provided just £160,000 extra for neighbourhood policing, which will cover the annual cost of just seven PCSOs. That was hardly what we or the constabulary were expecting.

In May 2005, the Conservatives won control of Gloucestershire county council for the first time in two decades, with a manifesto commitment to provide 63 new police officers from county council resources, which is roughly one for each electoral division, specifically for community policing. The agreement has been made with the chief constable, who still has operational control, as is right and proper. Those officers will be available broadly for community policing.

Those police officers, who are delivering on a Conservative local manifesto promise, are starting to be recruited and trained—12 have been recruited and trained in 2006-07, with a further 17 to come next year and the following two years, so that the total of 63 will have been delivered by the time of the next local elections. I was surprised to see the extraordinary comments of the deputy leader of the county council Labour group. He welcomed the additional officers three times, but then got himself confused by saying that he was not sure that he was happy with them and wondered whether perhaps the police authority ought to fund them. He seemed to be saying either that he wanted the police precept to go up again or that he wanted the police officers to be removed, having welcomed them. That did not seem to be a very good start and he was either out of touch or confused, or both.

I am sure that the Minister will mention the rise in police numbers nationally since 1997, which, to be fair, have risen from 128,000 to 140,000. It is worth pointing out that general Government funding has not kept up with the rise in costs. In real terms, the Government grant funds only 120,000 of those police officers, and even with the crime fighting fund, the numbers would have remained roughly stable. The big rise—this is certainly true in Gloucestershire—has been almost entirely funded by local people through the police part of their council tax. Before the Minister praises the Government, I hope that he will at least acknowledge that the increase in the number of police officers is significantly due to the decisions of local police authorities and not the Government. Indeed, in Gloucestershire, the local police authority, at some cost to its reputation, increased the precept by 51 per cent. a few years ago. That was not at all popular, but it is the only reason why we have a significantly increased number of officers in Gloucestershire. If it had not done that, we would have seen a decrease in the number of police officers, not an increase.

My final point is about police funding. In 2007-08, the year coming, the general grant for Gloucestershire from the Home Office will increase to £56.5 million, which is a rise of 3.6 per cent. However, the other specific grants that Gloucestershire receives will decrease overall by 7 per cent. as most of them are either frozen, decreased or eliminated. Total central funding from the Government to Gloucestershire on a like-for-like basis for 2007-08 is only about 1.5 per cent. over the year before. Police authority precept rises are capped at 5 per cent. and the actual increase in police costs, largely due to pay and other cost pressures, is well above the increase in funding. In 2007-08, the constabulary faces a deficit of almost £6 million just to maintain services, let alone to develop or improve them. To cover that, the reserves are likely to have to be used.

In 2008-09, which is the year about which the constabulary is most concerned, it seems that the situation will deteriorate. Indications from the Home Office suggest that funding is likely to be frozen at around 2.7 per cent., and much of that is likely to go towards prisons and the immigration service. The police are likely to have real problems because costs will continue to rise.

All in all, the financial outlook for the next couple of years is bleak. As well as responding to my points about the deployment of police officers, I should be grateful if the Minister could say something to put my constituents’ and even the chief constable’s minds at rest.

If the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) wants to make a point, I shall allow him to intervene.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. I am pleased to be here this afternoon. I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing this important debate and the way in which he presented his case. I am also pleased to see his hon. Friends the Members the Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Tewkesbury, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). I know that for all of them, whatever our differences, this is an important and serious debate. I welcome the constructive and thoughtful way in which the hon. Member for Forest of Dean made his points, even if there are differences between us. If I fail to answer any of his points, it will not be a deliberate omission. He is at liberty to intervene and I shall respond appropriately.

The point to make at the beginning is that although I shall respond to some of the issues about police funding, the deployment of officers in the local area is of course an operational matter for the chief constable in liaison with the police authority. I guess that part of the reason for raising the matter is to raise those issues and I am sure that he has been in correspondence and had discussions with the chief constable.

I know something about Gloucestershire because I visited Cheltenham and Tewkesbury basic command unit a few months ago and went to Whaddon police station on 19 September. I had the opportunity to see at first hand the neighbourhood policing there and was impressed by the commitment of the local police officers. I have met the chief constable of Gloucestershire and was impressed. I am also impressed by the work that the police do in Gloucester and Gloucestershire and I would like publicly to commend them. I know that the hon. Gentlemen and my hon. Friend join me in that commendation.

The hon. Member for Forest of Dean will have heard some of the funding figures, but I need to put them on the record. There has been a huge increase in resources for the police service in England and Wales over a sustained period. On a like-for-like basis, Government grant and central spending on services for the police will have increased from £6.2 billion in 1997-98 to £11 billion in 2007-08, which is an increase of nearly £4.8 billion or a cash increase of 77 per cent. or, in real terms, more than 39 per cent. between 1997-98 and 2007-08. Gloucestershire and other police authorities and police services throughout the country will have received their fair share of those resources.

Provisional allocations for 2007-08 were announced as long ago as December 2005 to provide greater certainty and allow authorities such as Gloucestershire to improve medium-term planning. Police forces and police authorities have welcomed that. That is why we will move to a three-year settlement from 2008-09—the hon. Gentleman mentioned that—to try to provide some certainty for planning, although there will always be a debate about the level of those resources.

All police authorities, including Gloucestershire, are set to receive an increase in general formula grant, which makes up the great bulk of central Government support to the police of 3.6 per cent. That increase is both higher than the 3.1 per cent. increase in general grant this year and well above inflation, which was forecast to be 2.7 per cent. The hon. Gentleman will know that the consultation period on the provisional funding settlement for 2007-08 closed on 5 January. We are now considering the representations that we have received in response to the formal funding announcement that we made on 28 November and the House will debate the Government’s proposed settlement at the end of the month.

Gloucestershire, like every other police force, has benefited from the good funding settlements of the past few years. Total Government funding for Gloucestershire will have increased from £51.7 million in 1997-98 to £70 million next year, which is an increase of more than £18 million or a cash increase of more than 35 per cent. However, it is only fair to acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point that police authorities throughout the country, including Gloucestershire, have made local decisions about the level of precept that they should charge, and district councils such as my own, which do not have a police authority function, have also purchased police community support officers. My authority has purchased six.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about Gloucestershire’s decision, which many authorities throughout the country have made. He wanted me to refer to that.

I acknowledged the increase in funding from year to year, but it is worth remembering that for local government, as well as the police, many of the costs facing constabularies are largely pay costs that are determined centrally. Pension costs are determined centrally and many of the framework and target regimes are given to police authorities and constabularies from the centre. So it is fair and reasonable to look not just at the increase in funding, but at the other side of the income and expenditure account and the costs that are imposed on those constabularies. My point was that the rise in forces’ incomes is not keeping pace with centrally imposed costs. That is where the problem lies.

There is always a debate about costs and income. My point is that there has been a significant rise in income for Gloucestershire police from central Government. The hon. Gentleman asked me to recognise that local authorities, including Gloucestershire, make a valuable contribution to that. I was trying to respond to that point.

Gloucestershire will receive £56.5 million in general grants in 2007-08, an increase of 3.6 per cent. or £2 million over this year. That is in line with the broadly flat increase of 3.6 per cent. for all police authorities throughout England and Wales. It is worth noting that Gloucestershire would have received £600,000 less if we had applied the police funding formula strictly. Gloucestershire has been supported by the funding formula for many years, and it benefits from that method. I receive complaints from police forces throughout the country which lose money because we establish a funding floor so that others, including Gloucestershire, do not lose out according to the funding formula.

On top of the general grant that Gloucestershire will receive, there will be more than £13 million in specific grants and capital provision. That will include £1.8 million in special formula grant, a consolidation of former grants, which will include £770,000 from the rural policing fund. Police authorities have complete flexibility to spend formula grants as they choose. We have recently announced that from this year, the control of officer numbers that accompanied the largest specific grant, the crime fighting fund, is being lifted, as the hon. Gentleman noted. It is a major facet of funding flexibility, for which the police service has long campaigned, and if we are being honest, the policy is a real difficulty.

We have responded to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities, which have asked us to stop ring-fencing money and give them the additional money so that police services can use it in their local areas as they see fit. That is what we have done. The changes that we have made, which brought about the reduction in police community support officer numbers to which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Cotswold referred, were due to the flexibilities that the police service and the APA asked us to introduce. The APA press release following the change said that it was a welcome step in the right direction and “a positive step forwards”.

There is a tension, however. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean, the hon. Member for Cotswold and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud know that there is always a conflict between the national direction in which funds should be spent and local flexibility and decision making. We responded to the demand from local police services and authorities for flexibility, and we gave it to them. As a result, they are able to choose how they wish to spend the money.

There is a consequence. I am sure that in other debates people would say, “Central Government should get off the back of local services, let local people determine how best to deliver services in their area and let them make the choices which best fit that.” That is what we have done with those funds and resources.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, because I acknowledge that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) introduced the debate. However, I have some misgivings about the loss of the ring-fenced funding in rural areas, because it served a function by drawing attention to the need to police rural areas differently. I understand what my hon. Friend says and why the police wanted to remove the ring-fencing, but it has some adverse consequences.

I take that point as I have tried to take others. This is an important debate, and the point of debates in Westminster Hall is to air differences of view. There is a tension between national, central direction and local flexibility. However, we have responded to ACPO and to the APA. Nationally, they said to us, “We want flexibility.” My hon. Friend referred to the rural fund. It was changed before this year and all rolled together partly in response to local police forces saying to us, “Please give us the money so that we can make the decisions about how best to use police resources in our area.” On rural policing generally, the allocation of resources throughout the force area is a matter for local decision making. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have talked to the chief constable and to other members of the police authority about the balance between urban and rural policing.

I accept the Minister’s point that it is helpful if police authorities are given the funds with as little ring-fencing as possible, but they must have the funds. One problem with the PCSO announcement was that although the Government did not tell constabularies to have a certain number of PCSOs, they did not give them all the money either. There was less money available nationally, the bulk of it went to London, and the one-off amount that the Gloucestershire constabulary received for neighbourhood policing was £167,000, which does not pay for much at all.

The hon. Gentleman knows that in 2006-07 we funded 100 per cent. of PCSOs in Gloucestershire for five months. That figure was in the budget for 2006-07. In 2007-08, 100 per cent. of PCSOs will be funded at 75 per cent. of the cost. If we compare the money that Gloucestershire received for that five months in 2006-07 with the money in 2007-08, during which we are funding all PCSOs for the entire year at 75 per cent. of the cost, a figure that every constabulary throughout the country knew, we return to a 3.6 per cent. increase, rather than the 1.5 per cent. increase to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Neighbourhood policing is being introduced in Gloucestershire, and it is important: it provides the responsive, accountable and visible policing that we all wish to see. On 31 March 2006, Gloucestershire had 1,289 police officers, 156 more than in March 1997. Support staff are often missed out in any discussion of police officers, but they are an important part of the police service. The number of support staff working with those officers in Gloucestershire was 675, an increase of 240 since 1997. It helps with delivery.

Police numbers in the Forest and Gloucester basic command unit, which will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman, increased from 292 in March 2002 to 357 in March 2006. There were also 30 PCSOs by June 2006. It is interesting how the debate about PCSOs has moved on from opposition to their introduction to argument about their numbers. We should all pay tribute to the work that they do, as to be fair the hon. Gentleman has.

Recorded crime fell by 1 per cent. in Gloucestershire in 2005-06 compared with the previous year; there was an impressive 14 per cent. fall in domestic burglary and a 16 per cent. fall in vehicle crime. Within the Forest of Dean crime and disorder reduction partnership, there were also impressive falls in crime. The hon. Gentleman pointed out alleged funding difficulties with which we do not agree, but in the basic command unit in his constituency, overall crime was down by 10 per cent. Domestic burglary was down by 20 per cent. and vehicle crime was down by 26 per cent.

The fall in overall crime in the Forest of Dean is better than those recorded by more urban CDRPs. We should pay tribute to the work not only of the police, as he has, but of the Forest of Dean CDRP. I had a look at its website, and the different initiatives are impressive. While we debate the levels of resources and funding, it is important to point out, as I know the hon. Gentleman will, the successes in reducing crime in many areas, so that people feel safer on the street.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate. In rural areas, I understand that the target response time for police is still 20 minutes. If we know that, the criminals know that, and one can do an awful lot of damage to a house or to a person in 20 minutes. I am sceptical about Government targets anyway, but will the Minister consider that time?

I shall, but I should have thought that that time was the maximum response time. Gloucestershire police, along with the police authority, will in most instances respond to a 999 call far more quickly than that.

The time is 1.29 pm, and I am not sure whether we have 10 seconds or 40 seconds left. However, I again congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean on securing the debate. Neighbourhood policing is an important issue.