House of Commons
Wednesday 31 January 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Duchy of Lancaster
The Chancellor was asked—
V has made good progress since its launch in May last year, creating 42,000 volunteering opportunities for young people this year alone. It has attracted pledges of more than £17 million in match funding from the private sector, and in addition up to £100 million is available from the Government. I look forward to it making further progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he agrees that for good volunteering opportunities, we need access to good funding. Unfortunately, Tory-controlled Dudley metropolitan borough council has just cut grants to 40 voluntary organisations in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend visit my constituency and meet my young volunteers and co-ordinators, with a view to their accessing v funding?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I certainly will come to her constituency to see the good work being done there. She raises the important point that the work done by organisations such as v is significant. It is important that v should be independent from Government and sector-led, and that it hears the voice of young people, but it is also important to ensure that the proper resources are put in, so that we ensure the high-quality volunteering opportunities that young people need. The experience that my hon. Friend mentions gives us a preview of what would happen if the Opposition came to power.
We do not need to wait for that to happen, glorious though that possibility is. The Minister’s own Government promised £3.7 million to Community Service Volunteers last year, but they failed to pay it. CSV approached the Minister, who said that he was anxious to help. That did not come to any good, so CSV approached the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but apparently nothing happened. It was not until lawyers got involved that the Government finally paid up, and as a result CSV lost £90,000 in interest. Will Ministers reimburse that lost interest, or will the epitaph for this temporary team be “We were anxious to help, but nothing happened”?
The hon. Gentleman raises the case of CSV, and it is a bad case. He is correct to say that the money should have been paid earlier by the Department of Health, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I both got involved to expedite the process. On the question of the interest, I think that his suggestion should be looked at sympathetically. I know that the Department of Health and the Treasury are both in discussions with CSV, and I hope that there is a productive outcome.
Last Friday night, I presented certificates of achievement to 100 millennium volunteers aged 16 to 24. That demonstrates that the desire to volunteer is strong among young people in Hartlepool, but what additional incentives will my hon. Friend consider to encourage greater take-up of volunteering among young people? For example, will he consider waiving tuition fees for young people who volunteer?
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor suggested looking into whether the issue of tuition fees could be considered in relation to volunteering opportunities. The young volunteers to whom I talk say that they get a huge amount out of volunteering for themselves and their future career, and also get satisfaction from it. Part of the job of v and other organisations is to spread that message more widely, including through young people themselves.
Voluntary Sector Compact
Since its introduction in 1998, important steps have been taken to implement the compact. However, we recognise that there is more to do. That is why key aspects of it, such as multi-year funding, are a focus of the next spending review, and that is why we have appointed a new commissioner to oversee its implementation.
The Minister must know that the compact on relations with the voluntary sector will be 10 years old next year, yet key principles, such as full cost recovery by key Government funders, have been routinely ignored. There was a cross-cutting review in 2002, and there is now another review. Will the Minister tell the voluntary sector in Southend and throughout the country what will be different about the latest review, recognising that we all welcome a “sinner that repenteth”?
What I will tell voluntary groups in Southend is that there has been massive improvement in the past 10 years. Even in the past two years, the proportion of organisations funded on the basis of full cost recovery has gone up from 49 to 57 per cent. Do not take my word for it; look at a document published just before Christmas, which said:
“This Government has made good steps in its approach to the sector (expansion of Gift Aid, increase in sector funding, new dedicated ministry, and the Compact)”.
Who published that document? Not the Government, but the Conservative party’s social justice policy group, on which the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) serves.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the voluntary sector is particularly well represented in the sports sector, as 26 per cent. of all volunteers are involved in sport. Will he ensure that they fully understand the implications of the compact? He is welcome to attend a meeting tomorrow of a national organisation that represents all those people, of which I am chair. Will he bring the message of hope, which is that volunteering, particularly in 2012, will drive forward our agenda, particularly for young people, who increasingly get involved in volunteering, especially in sport? That is the positive message that I hope he will bring to the meeting.
My hon. Friend is right. I am looking forward to the meeting that he mentions. Already 110,000 people have volunteered to get involved in the Olympics, both before and during the games. There is a massive opportunity to drive that number far higher, to get a whole generation of young people, in particular, involved in volunteering, and to use the Olympic games not just for the good that they will do for sport in this country, but for the wider effects that they can have.
In assessing the implementation of the compact, is the Minister aware that the Department for Work and Pensions proposes to take £20 million of European social fund moneys away from successful voluntary sector schemes to help the most disadvantaged back into work, and to use those moneys to fund its own activities instead, which may cause, for example, CSV to lay off 100 people and deny help to 17,000 people in the coming financial year? Does he think that that is in the spirit of the compact and, if not, will he ask the Department for Work and Pensions to think again?
The amount of money available under the European social fund is falling over time, partly as a result of increased prosperity in the United Kingdom. That judgment is made not in this country, but in Europe. Stability in funding for the voluntary sector is extremely important. That is why we are putting an emphasis on three-year funding, which the Chancellor referred to in the pre-Budget report. I cannot guarantee that every voluntary organisation will continue to be funded. What we can seek to do is change the culture in Government so that there is greater stability in funding.
Since 2002 the Government have set a target to increase levels of volunteering, including most recently to increase substantively levels of volunteering by communities at particular risk of marginalisation. In the financial year beginning April 2007 more than £64 million will be invested by the Government in volunteering programmes in England. That is up from £5.3 million in 1997.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will be interested to hear about the work of Swansea Council for Voluntary Service’s development project for 14 to 19-year-olds. The projects raises awareness about volunteering for young people and provides new opportunities for them, which is much appreciated by the people they work with. Will she join me in congratulating SCVS on its work and ensure that volunteering continues to receive Government funding?
I am happy to welcome the reports from Swansea that the local authority there is working hard to improve opportunities for volunteering. That is happening across the country. I welcome local government’s recognition that encouraging young people in particular to volunteer is an important way for them to improve their self-esteem, engage effectively with other people, and build skills and confidence that will serve them well in years to come.
The Duchy is of course involved in the entire programme and has available to it all the programmes that the Government have initiated. I shall certainly look at that as I go around many of the farms and so on. The volunteering for all programme is designed to encourage everyone, especially those who have been in areas of social exclusion and marginalisation. I am not sure that that would apply to all the Duchy tenants, but we are seeking to widen the range of people coming forward. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that over the past two years the number of people volunteering has increased by 2 million. That will no doubt be welcomed across the House.
Personalisation is crucial to the effectiveness of public services and tackling social exclusion, particularly among the most disadvantaged. People rightly expect services to be tailored to their own needs and circumstances. That is why the Government have introduced measures such as direct payments for disabled people and those requiring social services, specialised help for struggling pupils at school, and stretching programmes for more talented pupils, as well as the pathways to work programme for disabled people receiving incapacity benefit.
In my constituency, we have many varied social and health needs, so I welcome the approach towards personalising services. However, I am concerned that not all our large public bodies are yet ready to provide that personalisation to the person who walks through the door, be it of the jobcentre or the health centre. What assessment does my hon. Friend make of where we stand now and the direction of travel?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to go further. She is right to say that public services must be geared to people’s individual circumstances. We will take more steps in that direction through the projects to support the most vulnerable families and children that will be announced shortly by the Department for Education and Skills and through the work being done by the social exclusion taskforce and the Department for Communities and Local Government on ways to support adults with some of the most difficult multiple and complex needs.
Deputy Prime Minister
The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Departmental Efficiency Savings
The Government’s objective is to achieve a strong economy and a just society. I continue to play a full part in developing and implementing that Government policy, as the Prime Minister has asked me to do. Significant progress has been made over the past 10 years whereby we have proved that we can have strong economic growth coupled with social justice, as well as exceed our Kyoto targets on the environment.
On performance, the House will know that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, unlike any other Whitehall Department, is not required to produce an autumn performance report or a capability review. Is that official confirmation that the Deputy Prime Minister does not have a proper job, or is it that he is incapable of performing the one that he is supposed to have?
As I have told the House before, I carry out the job exactly as Lord Heseltine defined it—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, hon. Members can check the record as to exactly what Lord Heseltine said to the Public Service Committee about working on behalf of the Prime Minister at their request.
As for departmental capability reviews, it is a pity that the previous Administration did not have them. If that had been done under the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported perhaps we would not have had the mess that we had with mass unemployment and the running down of most of our social services which led to the Tories being thrown out in 1997.
Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s long track record in trade union activity, will he comment on today’s strike by Public and Commercial Services Union members who are concerned about job losses, reductions in pay and the billions being spent on consultancy, which make it ever more difficult for them to deliver the quality of service that we as taxpayers need—particularly today, which, I remind hon. Members and colleagues, is the last day for self-assessment forms to be returned?
As the Government have made clear, the two parties have to get round the negotiating table on these matters of dispute. Indeed, I spend quite a bit of my time involved in that process. I would say to the union that it should look at this Government’s record in terms of how many public service employees there are now compared with 1997—well into hundreds of thousands are employed in front-line services in hospitals and in education. Of course there have been some adjustments and reforms—we accept that—but, in terms of what the union is talking about, there have been only 35 redundancies. Yes, it has a job to do in presenting the viewpoint of its members, but at the end of the day this dispute must be settled around the negotiating table, and we encourage the union to get there.
Since the Department’s efficiency savings depend on the success of the profit-sharing agreement for the millennium dome site, and since Anschutz Entertainment Group has said that it has no plan B following the collapse of the £300 million casino project, what plan B does the Deputy Prime Minister have to salvage the revenue?
The contract on the dome is clear for all to see. It was negotiated between the Government and the company, and that is what it will have to carry out. I have not been involved in any way in plan As or plan Bs, although the hon. Gentleman makes that suggestion. I have simply been involved in seeing that a contract negotiated by a previous colleague was implemented. It has been very good for Greenwich, creating more jobs and more prosperity, which mirrors an awful lot of what this Government are doing right round the country.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that despite the initiative on departmental efficiency savings, he has managed to spend £645 changing the sign outside his office from “Office of the Deputy Prime Minister” to “Deputy Prime Minister’s Office”? Does not that symbolise the shocking waste of money under this Government when thousands of jobs are being cut from the NHS?
As for the name plate, it is dealt with by the Department and its civil servants, to be honest. I hear the argument about £645, but that would not have paid for one sentence of any of the right hon. Gentleman’s speeches at the rate he charges—[Interruption.] Leaving that aside, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the waste of money, let us talk about the billions of pounds we paid keeping people on the dole, which this Government changed in 1997.
It will not be many months before the Deputy Prime Minister can charge a fortune, because people will split their sides for his speeches. He has all of that to look forward to. In the meantime, since he is responsible for the co-ordination of Government policy, does not the state of the Home Office, with prisoners who should be in jail being released because of the failure to plan, and the state of the health service, with 37,000 job cuts this year, suggest that co-ordination of policy has rarely been so incoherent and paralysed? Does the responsibility for that lie with the Deputy Prime Minister or with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer?
We fully accept our responsibility for the good government of this country. We have got millions of people back to work, we have reduced waiting lists and put more investment into education and health, so we are happy to compare that record with the 18 years under the right hon. Gentleman’s Government. We have a very good record, which I ask him to consider. It is a bit of a cheek for the right hon. Gentleman to criticise us, bearing in mind that he was a member of that disastrous Government, who brought terrible consequences for our people and the country’s economy. I am quite prepared to make a comparison. Let the right hon. Gentleman keep on making the speeches; quite frankly, that is just about where his ability lies. I believe that he is now the man responsible for getting the votes back for his party in Yorkshire and Humberside. There were no gains when he was leading the Tory party and if he has to get the level of support back to that in 1992, I am bound to tell him that it will take 40 years. That sounds right. Keep the night-time job and the pay, but quite frankly, he will not be back in government.
Early Years Provision
Discussions have taken place on an individual basis with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as well as within the Cabinet Committee system and, indeed, the Cabinet. With specific reference to early years and schools, I think that our record speaks for itself. We have abolished classes of more than 30 for primary-aged pupils; we are on track to deliver 3,500 Sure Start centres for the under-fives by 2010; we are extending flexible, free part-time nursery care for three and four-year olds up to 15 hours a week, also by 2010; and we have invested £40 million for extra classrooms and extensions to ensure that no child of five, six or seven will be in a class of 30. Thanks to £35 million investment, we have ended the scandal of primary schools having to rely on outside toilets, which characterised their state under the previous Conservative Administration.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the Government’s poverty programme depends heavily on rolling out the children’s centres in particularly poor areas where the take-up is the lowest? That programme is being hampered by the fact that primary care trusts such as the North Yorkshire and York PCT are running at a record deficit and will not be able to make a contribution. The trust’s nursery programme is also under severe threat because of the code of practice. Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that early-years provision is in absolute tatters?
I certainly do not accept that. Three thousand children’s centres are now being established and there were 500 Sure Starts set up under our previous Administration. They provided opportunities not only for young children, but for mothers to start national vocational qualifications and for old and young people to come together in community centres. I have to tell the hon. Lady that although we have not done as much as should be done, we are on target to achieve what we said we would by 2010. What she said would be a little more acceptable if the hon. Lady had not voted against every Budget to provide the money to pay for those programmes.
No, it does not.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Government employed the Labour-supporting public relations consultant Sheree Dodd, and that she provided PR support to him? Given that the departmental annual report will be produced long after he has left, should he not tell the House today how much Sheree Dodd cost?
We did not.
May I remind my right hon. Friend that he has a public relations contract, which was signed, sealed and delivered at the general election? On that basis, may I invite him to come north at the earliest opportunity and remind the people of Scotland what the Labour party has done for them?
I think that is right and the test will come in the elections, which will show exactly what we have done not only in Scotland but in Wales and, indeed, in England. We look forward to the result—we shall certainly play a part in the elections. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), of the Scottish Nationalist party, who is nodding, looks forward to those elections, too. Judge us on our record for a United Kingdom, not one that is divided.
I make regular visits to communities across the UK, which enable me to see the real progress that has been made in tackling poverty, increasing employment and bringing new life to our cities through urban regeneration and improved housing.
I usually incorporate several strands on each visit. For example, recent visits to Bristol, Liverpool, Hull and London have included discussions on this year’s bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The events were launched at No. 10, and I am happy to say that I had the support of the Opposition at that launch to commemorate 1807.
In addition, when I was in Liverpool two weeks ago, I talked to residents of the housing market renewal pathfinder in the Welsh streets area and visited a community centre in the new deal area in Knowsley.
All those visits were, and I think that visiting to see exactly how Labour’s policies are successful in the new deal areas or the pathfinder housing schemes is important. All those policies will be put to the test in the election. I am proud of what the Government have done in the past 10 years, compared with the previous Tory Administration. We will see what the people think when the election comes. Tories should stand by for getting another bloody nose.
When the Deputy Prime Minister visited Liverpool, did he meet residents who were satisfied with their new homes, which have been provided as a result of Government housing market renewal policies in the Welsh streets area? Does he intend to make a return visit as part of the commemoration of the abolition of slavery?
I am well aware from my visit—and, indeed, from my hon. Friend’s support—of the Welsh streets area. Pathfinders have been criticised but nearly 80 per cent. of the people want the old Victorian houses knocked down and to live in decent conditions. That is what the pathfinder programme is about. The people are also proud of the historic landmarks that are coming, especially the commemorations of 1807 and the abolition of slavery. Liverpool has a comprehensive programme this year, which includes celebrating the city’s 800th anniversary.
I recall that we won that election.
Departmental Capability Review
[Interruption.] Part of the problem is that questions 1, 2 and 3 are followed by question 13. The numbering has changed.
Decisions on the timing of capability reviews of individual Departments are a matter for the Cabinet Secretary.
Well, whether we have a Department or a Deputy Prime Minister is a matter for the Prime Minister. That has always been the case. I leave whoever is the next Prime Minister to make that judgment. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I am at a rather happy demob stage, so I can say that.
As the right hon. Gentleman talks about the capability review, may I remind the House that he was the official Opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland who, at the time of the Good Friday agreement—on which we may see historic success in the next few weeks—went on holiday? That may have been good for his perma-tan, but it was not good for the agreement, and certainly did not show any capability.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The Prime Minister will know that the number of police officers across England and Wales dropped by 173 in the first six months of this year. He will also know that Greater Manchester has seen a cut of 216 police officers. Bearing in mind the fact that his staff believe that his area has had far too much police attention, while my constituents believe that my area has had far too little attention to policing, will he arrange for a transfer of resources, so that both he and I can have a good night’s sleep?
Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we have record numbers of police: more than 140,000. That is some 14,000 more than we inherited in 1997. In addition, we have thousands of community support officers. Furthermore, as a result of the antisocial behaviour legislation, we are now able to take action against those who make life hell for people in communities such as his. What do all three of those things have in common? The Liberal Democrats voted against every single one of them. I am therefore delighted when Liberal Democrats ask about law and order.
Today we have seen the takeover of Corus UK by Tata, which will affect every one of Corus UK’s 24,000 employees. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to adding their voice in support of continued investment in the UK steel industry? Such a commitment would be warmly welcomed by Corus workers in my constituency and elsewhere in the UK.
I pay tribute to the work done by Corus employees in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere in the country. I assure her that we will continue to support investment in our steel industry, which remains in a difficult competitive atmosphere internationally. I know, however, that the Corus work force are doing their best to ensure that they compete successfully and safeguard jobs.
The Home Secretary has said that the problems at the Home Office will take two and a half years to sort out. Clearly, a long-term approach is needed. Can the Prime Minister therefore guarantee that the current Home Secretary will be in his job for longer than four and a half months?
I can certainly guarantee that he will continue to make investment in prison places, for example, and community support officers. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that just last week the latest crime statistics showed a fall in recorded crime yet again. Over the past 10 years, whatever the challenges in the Home Office, crime has fallen. It doubled under the Government he supported.
The fact is that violent crime has doubled and our prisons are in crisis—and the Government have had 10 years to sort it out. I asked about the Home Secretary’s future. Because the Prime Minister is going, he cannot give any sort of guarantee. Is that not the whole problem with this Government? In any organisation, if one has long-term problems, one cannot have a short-term chief executive. Does the Prime Minister not realise that in those circumstances a Minister such as the Home Secretary just cannot plan for the future?
Let me just point out that as well as crime being down overall, the most serious violent crime fell by 20 per cent. in the past year. We are increasing investment in prisons: we have increased it by 36 per cent. in real terms over the past 10 years, and we are about to build another 8,000 places. The right hon. Gentleman opposed the investment in our prison places. In addition, as a result of his shadow Chancellor’s fiscal rule of sharing the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and investment, he cannot even commit to the 8,000 places. There is no point lecturing me about it.
We do not have to take the Prime Minister’s word for it, because the Home Secretary has told us that his Department is not fit for purpose, and is going to get worse. Let us consider his case: the person responsible for giving him the money to sort out the problem is his bitter rival, who wants him to fail. I ask the Prime Minister again: when the Home Secretary does not know whether he will have a job in four and half months’ time, how can he plan for the future?
As a matter of fact, there was a specific agreement to increase prison funding last year. That is why we are able to commit ourselves to 8,000 extra places. I repeat, not only did the right hon. Gentleman oppose the investment that has given us the extra prison places—2,500 are coming on stream this year—but if we adopted the policy that he wants, we could afford only half that number of places. The fact of the matter is that as a result of the Chancellor’s strong economic record, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is able to provide the investment—and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is opposed to it.
The Prime Minister talks of his policy, but he will not be here to implement it. When will he realise that it is all over? Just look at his Cabinet! Half its members are falling over themselves to attack his foreign policy so that one of them can become deputy leader, while the other half are appearing on picket lines to protest against his health policy—and there is nothing he can do about it. Can he not see that it is time for him to go?
The right hon. Gentleman took a long time building up to that.
Let us compare the record of this Government on crime, police numbers, and asylum and immigration with the record of the last Government. We have cut crime. We have managed to ensure that for the first time ever, the Home Office is expelling more people with unfounded asylum claims than it is taking in. When we came to office the proportion was one in five, and we inherited a backlog of 60,000, which is now down to a few thousand. That is a record of change and investment of which we can be proud—and which the right hon. Gentleman opposed every inch of the way.
Why can the Prime Minister not see the reality that is staring him in the face? The Government cannot plan, and Ministers are treading water. They are all waiting for the Chancellor, and not listening to the Prime Minister. His authority is draining away. Why does he not accept what everyone knows—that it is now in the national interest for him to go?
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what I believe is in the national interest: that we continue with a strong economy, the highest levels of employment and the lowest levels of unemployment, that we continue with our policies for the health service, which have seen waiting lists fall by 400,000, that we continue with our policies on education, which have seen the best school results ever, and that we continue to reduce crime and do not, as the right hon. Gentleman’s party did, increase it.
My right hon. Friend will know of the massive investment in our museums and galleries that has led to millions of new visitors. In the light of that, will he comment on the decision by the London borough of Wandsworth, only nine months after council elections at which it remained silent on the subject, to close the very popular Wandsworth museum and threaten Battersea arts centre with closure? Is that not an example of a Tory council choosing cuts over cultural heritage?
Let me add to what my hon. Friend has said by pointing out that we have substantially increased the grant to local government. There is absolutely no cause for the closure of museums and arts centres that perform such a good local role. And of course it is this Government, as a result of our policy of free entry to museums, who have enabled literally millions more visitors, including children, to go to museums. My hon. Friend has given a telling example of the difference between the values of a Labour Government and those of a Tory Government.
Does the Prime Minister share public concern about the fact that at 5 per cent., the conviction rate for the crime of rape in this country is one of the lowest in Europe? Is it not time for a wholesale review of the law to ensure that we provide proper protection for women—and men—who are subjected to this traumatic and violent assault?
We are already considering how to improve the conviction rate for rape, but I think it fair to point out that more than 80 per cent. of rape cases involve non-stranger rape—in other words, the alleged assailant is known to the victim—and in more than 50 per cent. of those cases either a partner or an ex-partner is involved. For those reasons, it will obviously always be more difficult to secure a conviction. As the most recent report says, however, the way in which the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are working to help victims of rape has improved the position significantly over the past few years.
I am satisfied that those have improved dramatically over the past few years. Victims are treated with far greater care and far greater attention to their trauma than was the case a decade or a couple of decades ago. I want to point out a detail that it is important to recognise. Although the number of convictions has gone up, not down, it is true that the proportion of claims that result in conviction has gone down—but it is only fair to point out that as a large proportion of cases involve people who either are in or have been in a relationship with the alleged assailant or are known to them, it is inevitable that it will be more difficult to secure a conviction. I entirely agree that it is important that we continue to see what more we can do to make sure that this horrendous crime is treated properly.
Is the Prime Minister aware of the anger and disappointment felt in the communities of Lambeth and Southwark over his Secretary of State for Health’s decision to close the 24-hour emergency clinic at the Maudsley hospital? Does he realise that, in the teeth of opposition from two local councils with all-party support, as well as opposition from five local MPs including two Cabinet Ministers and his own Parliamentary Private Secretary, the Secretary of State went ahead and made that decision? Will he have a quiet word with her and ask her why she thinks that she knows more than all those people in the community who know how important that clinic is?
I am sure that local consultations will have been involved in the putting forward of those proposals. I am perfectly happy to have a look at the matter, but I am sure that my hon. Friend would also want to point out that overall, health care in her area, as in other parts of the country, has improved dramatically thanks to the investment and the change that has been made.
Franco-British Nuclear Forum
The first meeting of the forum was held in Paris in November last year, chaired by the Minister for Energy and the French Industry Minister. The working groups are focusing on specific areas for collaboration, and there will be a follow-up meeting on the issue in London in March.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the only party leader to support the industry. Given that there is huge international growth in the nuclear industry—perhaps best evidenced by the emergence of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership—how will the forthcoming energy White Paper enable the UK nuclear industry to capitalise on the vast commercial opportunities that exist?
I hope that within the next few weeks the White Paper will indicate how we can take forward the licensing regime for a new generation of nuclear power stations. As I said when I was in my hon. Friend’s constituency a short time ago, around the world today people are recognising that it will be very difficult for us to have energy security as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and CO2 emissions without replacing our existing nuclear power stations. If we do not take that action now—we have to make decisions now—we will face a situation over the next few years in which our dependence on gas imports rises, and we are unable to meet our CO2 emissions targets and make sure that we have proper energy security. For that reason, I was heartened to be told when I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency that his constituents were very willing to participate in this new nuclear power programme.
First, let me say that I am of course very sorry, and I extend my sympathy to any of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who have lost, or are likely to lose, their jobs. I can assure him that the local Jobcentre Plus and the Government will do everything that we can, as we have done in other situations, to put a support mechanism in place to ensure that they get alternative employment. I have to say, however, that Chesterfield’s economy, like that of the rest of the country, is infinitely stronger than it was in 1997: employment is up and unemployment is down. Yes, it is true that there have been a quarter of a per cent. rises in interest rates recently, but the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will remember when interest rates were 10 per cent. for four years, and 15 per cent. for months at a time. One reason why we can confidently expect people to get alternative employment is precisely the strength of the economy.
Following the report of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland on state collusion and murder in Northern Ireland, has the Prime Minister been made aware of the statement last Sunday by a former assistant chief constable, who said that MI5 had made, and continued to make, payments out of its own funding to informers who were involved in at least 10 murders? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the ombudsman’s report on that collusion dealt only with part of Belfast city and one unit of the loyalist paramilitary organisation, and that much, much more was happening throughout Northern Ireland? Does he not think that this warrants a statement to the House—
First of all, let me say to my hon. Friend that any form of collusion or improper activity by any part of the police or security services would be completely wrong, and would of course be deeply to be regretted. We are looking carefully at the report that has been published recently and we will take whatever action is appropriate. It is, however, important to emphasise—as I think the report itself did—that this concerns a minority of people, who obviously should not have been engaged in the activities that they were engaged in. But that should not take away from most of the work that officers did, in both the police and the Security Service, which was of enormous benefit to the local community. So it is important, while we deal with the wrongdoing, not to have a completely unbalanced picture of how the police and MI5 operated in Northern Ireland.
First of all, let me explain to the hon. Gentleman that there is no question—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman; my apologies. There is no question of our agreeing to anything behind closed doors with the German presidency, or anyone else. Last year we agreed that we would take stock following the French and Dutch no votes in the referendums. The German presidency is therefore obliged to take forward proposals for the Council later this year. Of course we are in discussions with the German Government as to what those proposals will be; it would be bizarre if we said, “We’re not prepared to talk to you about it.” Let us wait and see what the German presidency comes up with. Our position on the referendum and the constitutional treaty remains unchanged. But I really do believe, particularly in the light of the strong bilateral relationship that we have with the German Government today, and of the importance of Europe to this country, that it would be a wonderful thing for the politics of this country if people such as the right hon. Gentleman could liberate themselves from this absurd and antiquated view of Europe.
I would certainly be happy to do so, in arranging such a meeting. My hon. Friend puts his case in exactly the right way. It is clear that the PCT has to deal with the deficit, because, despite the very large additional investment, that deficit is still there. Of course, as a result of the new system—payment by results, practice-based commissioning and patient choice—hard adjustments will have to be made in some of the PCTs, but I agree that it is important that they be done in such a way that the huge improvements in the NHS’s performance continue to be safeguarded for patients.
Perhaps I can come back to the hon. Gentleman on the possibility of a meeting. I wish to express my condolences—as I am sure does the whole House—to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent’s family on the loss of their daughter. As he knows, the issue has been raised by Foreign Office Ministers over a long period, and we have been closely involved with the authorities in Bangkok in trying to make progress on that case. I know that Foreign Office officials continue to meet the family—weekly, I think—and we will try to do everything we can to bring it to a proper conclusion. I am happy to try to arrange some form of meeting, but I will have to come back to the hon. Gentleman about whether it is appropriate that it should be with me.
I was with my hon. Friend until the last bit of his question. I do not think that anyone has suggested that we withdraw from the social chapter. It is worth pointing out three things that have happened as a result of the changes that we have made. First, we have a minimum wage that helps millions of workers in this country get a decent living wage. Secondly, issues to do with parental leave, and maternity pay and leave, have seen huge advances, including a doubling of maternity leave and maternity pay. Thirdly, as a result of signing the social chapter, which was so bitterly opposed by the Conservatives, we have paid holiday leave for the first time, which is fantastically important for hundreds of thousands of some of the lowest paid workers in the country. I cannot believe that any party, other than one looking at the past rather than the future, could possibly agree to withdraw from the European social chapter.
The Prime Minister is known for his close association with President George W. Bush—but given all that has befallen the Prime Minister’s men and women in recent days, is not now the more relevant association one with President Richard Millhouse Nixon? Is there a cover-up in Downing street?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should raise that question when we are just about to have a Scottish election campaign. Why does he not put to me his case for independence and separation in Scotland? I will tell him why. It is because he knows that that policy would be a disaster for the Scottish economy and for living standards in Scotland. The reason why he cannot raise a Scottish question with me is because he does not dare.
Yes, I think that I can. I do congratulate the RSPB, and I want to point out that some of the £2.5 million being devoted to the project comes from the Environment Agency. The project will be a major advance for the local environment and habitat, and it underlines the importance of having an environment policy that is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting our natural environment in the proper way.
It could be ahead of that schedule, of course, because crime has fallen—[Interruption.] The chances of being a victim of crime are at their lowest for 25 years. We have record numbers of police, more offences are being brought to justice, and there has been an enormous reduction in ineffective trials. For all those reasons, I think that the assessment is correct.
I thank my hon. Friend for that invitation. The £30 million Boston house centre will bring services closer to patients, but the same thing is happening all over the country. For all the challenges arising from financial deficits, it is worth pointing out that waiting lists are coming down, more people are getting treatment closer to home, and they are getting it more quickly. Indeed, the GP services report showed that people are getting better access to the system than ever before. The fact that renal dialysis is being delivered closer to people means that they have far more control over their circumstances. It also reduces the pressure on hospitals; that is why investment and reform have to go together.
Of course I believe that it is important to ensure that prisoners are in the appropriate setting—but it is odd for a Liberal Democrat to accuse us of not building enough prison places. The hon. Gentleman says that 3,000 new offences have been introduced, but they have one thing in common: his party has voted against them all, even the most serious and violent ones. We know that Liberal Democrat prison policy would mean that no one would go to prison, because there would be no tough laws to make sure that they did. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the more that his party raises the issues of prison and law and order, the happier I am.
I do not always do this, but in this instance I will stick up for the GPs. In fact, they are doing a lot more work as a result of the national service programmes—[Interruption.] The report published on Monday showed that 90 per cent. of people now gain access to a GP within 48 hours, as opposed to just 50 per cent. when we came to office, and that is due in part to the enhanced provisions in the GP contract. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is committed to renegotiating that contract, but there is nothing wrong with our GPs being the best paid in Europe, provided that they deliver a better service. I believe that they are doing that.
In 1998, the Prime Minister was warned by President Clinton’s Secretary of State not to agree at St. Malo an autonomous defence capability for the EU that would duplicate and compete with NATO. Is he aware that the NATO Secretary-General warned yesterday that the EU and NATO would be unable to work together in a global crisis and that the distance between them is “astounding”, or does the Secretary-General—a Dutchman, incidentally—just believe in an antiquated and absurd view of Europe?
As I recall, in his previous incarnation he supported European defence—but let me tell the hon. Gentleman why I disagree so much with him over European defence. Of course it is important for Britain to maintain its strong relationship in NATO and many operations, as in Afghanistan, will be conducted with NATO; but in circumstances where, for example, the Americans do not want to be engaged, it makes sense—
I wish the hon. Gentleman would not shake his head before I have given him the answer—he might at least have something of an open mind.
The fact is that there are operations that we need to carry out with other European countries where the US is not engaged, so it makes perfect sense to do that as part of a European mission. There are somewhere in the region of 10 or 11 such missions around the world. They operate perfectly well, and are not in conflict with NATO.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At midnight tonight a new stealth tax comes into effect—the doubling of duty for millions of air passengers. That tax increase has not been approved by Parliament and is not covered by any resolution of Parliament; that is indeed without precedent, as has been confirmed by the Treasury Committee. This is nothing short of a constitutional outrage. Mr. Speaker, what can you do to protect the people of this country from taxation without representation?
Historic Counties, Towns and Villages (Traffic Signs and Mapping)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law so as to require traffic authorities to cause traffic signs to be placed on or near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county, town and village boundaries; to require the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the boundaries of the historic counties, towns and villages on its maps; and for connected purposes.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) who presented a similar Bill and, indeed, inspired the one that I present today. I thank the Association of British Counties, a society dedicated to promoting awareness of the 86 historic counties of Great Britain, which has campaigned tirelessly for their recognition through proper signage denoting historic county boundaries.
My Bill extends the principle of giving visible recognition to historic counties by including towns and villages, whose identity is so often lost when a district, borough or county council ignores the correct name of actual places and instead chooses to impose the name of the administrative authority, causing confusion and removing the sense of local identity that is so important to communities up and down our land.
Restoring identity to counties, towns and villages, along with pride and local patriotism in an historical context, is immensely important. I believe that we must stop the erosion of true local identities and restore the pride that people naturally feel in belonging to a county, town or village that in so many cases has already been lost.
My town of Romford is probably one of the best examples. As an historic Essex market town, there are indications of our historical links with Essex all over Romford—together with the constituencies of Hornchurch and Upminster, which today form the administrative authority of the London borough of Havering. That is a typical construct of the local government reforms of the 1960s. As I travel back after a busy week at Westminster to my home town of Romford, which lies within my home county of Essex, I enter the boundaries of Essex and Romford, but nowhere do I see a road sign welcoming me to either place. They have been written off the map by a dreadful local government culture that seems to recognise only the often made-up and artificial names of administrative boroughs or districts. That cannot be allowed to continue.
I was born in a place called Rush Green, a community within Romford but divided by a nonsensical local government boundary that splits one side of the area from the other, leaving half of it in Havering and the other in Barking and Dagenham. Only recently new signs were erected to welcome people to the area. You have guessed it, Mr. Speaker, down came the signs that indicated that one was entering Rush Green. They were replaced by signs saying, “Welcome to Havering”. I am aware that hon. Members have many such examples of the traditional boundaries of their counties, towns and villages being ignored by blinkered town hall bureaucrats who seem interested in promoting only the name of their administrative authority, even if it is a totally artificial name with no historic meaning.
To see an Essex sign, which should correctly be placed at the River Lea near Stratford in east London, I have to travel many miles, through a host of traditional Essex towns and communities, until I reach the other side of motorway 25, where Essex county council has erected “Essex” signs as one enters Brentwood. I and many of my constituents, who are proud of our Essex heritage and roots, find that deeply offensive. County councils, London boroughs, elected mayors and transport authorities must never be allowed to strip people of their local identities. The law must be changed and that is what my Bill seeks to do.
The importance of historic villages, towns and counties is much greater than just local government. They are sources of identity and objects of affection for many people and I sincerely hope that this significant part of our British identity can be secured for future generations. However, to achieve that, we must mandate local authorities to install signage indicating actual counties, towns and villages and giving their names precedence over the name of the administrative council itself. We must divorce administrative, regional, electoral and ward boundaries from true places that have existed for hundreds of years. I have even seen one local council—a Labour one—erecting a sign that indicates the made-up name of an electoral ward, rather than the actual name of the community, which has existed for centuries. How damaging to our identity such actions can be.
I have lived all my life in the community of Marshalls Park, which is where I went to school. That lies within the town of Romford, situated in the county of Essex, which forms part of a country called England. My home, until a future local government review takes place, may lie within the so-called Pettits ward of the London borough of Havering, in the region of Greater London, but those are names with no meaning, designed for administrative and electoral purposes only. We should never allow them to override or replace the true identities and place names of Britain’s historic counties, towns and villages, but sadly that is what is happening.
Let us conserve our heritage so that future generations understand the distinct and rich identities of a Yorkshireman, a Middlesaxon, a Lancastrian, or, like myself, a proud Essex lad. Let us defend our heritage and the history of these islands. Let us especially defend our historic counties, each with their own character—whether they be Rutland, Flintshire, Perthshire, Antrim, Middlesex or Essex—that form the foundations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The aim of the Bill is to denote, through true, correct and proper signage, the boundaries of historical villages, towns and counties. Signs would contain the traditional crest of the village, town or county, and not the logo of the local authority, unless it was very small and placed at the bottom of the sign. Such a change in procedure would clearly distinguish the permanent historical patchwork of places that comprise our country from the artificial creations of Whitehall that come and go. The Bill would restore our heritage, inspire local patriotism, and uphold our proud local identities, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Andrew Rosindell, Mr. Simon Burns, Derek Conway, Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Nigel Dodds, Mr. Mike Hancock, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Peter Luff, Mr. Greg Pope, Mr. John Randall, Bob Russell and Angela Watkinson.
Historic Counties, Towns and Villages (traffic Signs and Mapping)
Andrew Rosindell accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law so as to require traffic authorities to cause traffic signs to be placed on or near roads for the purpose of indicating the location of historic county, town and village boundaries; to require the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to mark the boundaries of the historic counties, towns and villages on its maps; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 29 June, and to be printed [Bill 55].
As a Middlesex MP, I beg to move,
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) for 2007-08, House of Commons Paper No. 207, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th January, be approved.
I am pleased to tell the House that we have delivered another reasonable funding settlement for the police service next year. It is important to say that that builds on considerable investment over a sustained period. Government grant and central spending on services for the police will have increased from £6.2 billion in 1997-98 to some £11 billion in 2007-08. That is a cash increase of nearly £4.8 billion, or 77 per cent.—almost 40 per cent. in real terms.
Let me put the increase in resources for the police service in a wider context. The Government have presided over the most intense programme of police reform for more than a century. We have not only provided significant extra resources for the service and increased personnel, but overseen performance management, a changing mix of roles in the work force and the implementation of neighbourhood policing. All those elements command support across the House.
I spoke for my party when we considered the relevant Bill and we were very much for them.
I do not challenge the Minister’s decision, because I understand why it has been taken, but is there any possibility of deploying unused funds from elsewhere to support the recruitment of community support officers in areas that can recruit and want to meet the Government’s original targets?
If I may, I will come to CSOs in more detail later. I have said to the chair of Avon and Somerset police authority and others that if there is some slack, or an unwillingness to pick up the respective contributions for the 16,000 recruitment target that was set for April 2007, I will be more than happy to consider the redistribution of the extra CSOs.
The latest figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers show that 10,000-plus CSOs have been recruited, and the feedback from the forces is that they will all reach the 16,000 target or just exceed it by April 2007. To be fair, the change from 24,000 to 16,000 has concentrated minds. Before the announcement, many authorities questioned whether they could reach the 16,000 target by April even with an accelerated recruitment pattern, which is one reason why we looked at the issue. The catharsis that resulted from our shifting the target means that all the forces have focused on it and, on latest intelligence, are on schedule to meet it. However, I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point—I want the target of 16,000 or so to be implemented, and I have told the chair of his police authority that, if give and take is required at the edges, we are prepared to look at that.
I accept that the Minister will come to police community support officers in a moment, but is he aware that Norfolk constabulary is trying very hard indeed to roll out the safer neighbourhoods partnership scheme, which has had a significant impact on reducing crime in Norfolk, particularly petty crime? That is critically dependent on the 280 PCSOs promised by the Department. The figure has been reduced, which means that either the scheme is at risk or Norfolk will have to increase the precept, thus risk capping. What advice can the Minister give Norfolk?
Earlier this week I met a delegation from Norfolk, and they made many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made. I am encouraged that he shares the Government policy agenda on neighbourhood policing, and accepts that it is successful. I do not dispute the fact that Norfolk has some challenging decisions to make about its budget. However, I am gratified that, as reported by the chair of the police authority, every district, county and other council in Norfolk supported the original target to implement—I think “implement” is preferable to “roll out”—neighbourhood policing, and I wish them well in doing so. We had a strong and fruitful discussion, and I said that I am more than happy to help in any way that I can by, for example, making representations across government and, if necessary, going to see what is already in place in Norfolk—
I am grateful to the Minister for finishing his sentence quickly. Police authorities throughout the country want to know what their position will be in future years. There was a widespread welcome for the new funding formula introduced by the Government, but there are concerns that the floors remain in place. Can the Minister tell us today whether there are any plans to reduce the existing floors so that counties that thought that they would do better under the new formula may receive greater funding in due course?
That is a fair question, and I shall come on to deal with the issue in detail. I accept that under the formula, with its existing floors and ceilings, Derbyshire is a loser, rather than a gainer. However, as I told the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) when we debated policing in Greater Manchester in Westminster Hall, for every loser there are gainers. I cannot say today how long the taper on floors and ceilings will remain in place, but—
May I finish my paragraph—not just a sentence this time—as my answer may affect the questions that hon. Members wish to ask? Without wishing to be churlish, I urge the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire to talk to colleagues in Cheshire, Cleveland, Cumberland, Devon and Cornwall, Dorset, Durham and so on, which gained from the settlement. I know that there are frustrations; there is some disquiet, and a debate is needed on the whole issue of police funding. The Lyons report will ensure that the subject is debated, at least in part. The frustrations to which I refer relate to the question of when we will receive that report, and I share those frustrations. If, outwith this debate on the settlement, we can have a mature, reflective and grown-up debate on where we should go with police funding, that would be welcome; we would then not need to talk about floors and ceilings.
The problem in Derbyshire is that the change in the formula has been negated for two years running, and there has been no progress in getting it implemented. For example, a similar authority, West Mercia, should get £4 million less than Derbyshire, but gets £10 million more. When will progress be made on that general problem for Derbyshire? We have reasonable local government settlements, but overall the county is losing £22 million because of the floors. Other authorities that have done much better than us over the years keep bleating about their settlements, while taking money away from us.
With the best will in the world, I have to demur. We are talking about seeking to reduce the impact of changes in formula across the country. We want to consider the impact of the changes—which are all in the right direction, by the way; all the changes in resources are upward. We want to equalise the impact across the country, as a prelude to ensuring a more level playing field in police finance, as the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire suggests. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, it is not enough for any Member to talk about “bleating”, or to give any other such description of counties that benefit—at least for now—from the ceiling, rather than otherwise.
I ask people to resist the notion that there are winners and losers, although I know that I will hear plenty more comments to that effect in our debate from colleagues on both sides of the House. The overall context is one of significant interest in resourcing for policing, so that everyone is a winner. It is not appropriate language to talk about the “cumulative losses” of authorities that have been at the wrong end of the floors and ceilings.
I appreciate the Minister’s approach to the debate. Does he accept that although Surrey has an excellent police force, our grant per head is only £89, which I think is the lowest rate in the country? It is well below the average in the south-east. That is a very low grant for us, and we have had extra expenses in connection with the police merger talks, and as a result of hosting the EU Heads of State meeting. Surrey is under a great deal of pressure, and I hope that the Minister will sympathise and perhaps take that into account.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that I am known for my sympathy for Surrey, in all respects. International events are dealt with under the special grant route. On his specific point—again, this goes back to the need for a general debate about finance—history plays a strong role in the situation. I take his point about the figure being relatively low, on a per-head basis. However, in terms of precept, Surrey is at the other end of the scale. It has a significant precept, and is ranked higher than many of the 43 authorities in England and Wales, but it has a larger population among whom to spread it. In terms of actual resources, Surrey is not hard done by compared with other forces. It is not ill-served by either the formula or the precept increases. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, in the sense that it cannot be right—this is my point about the general police financing arrangement—for the precept per head to range from £88 to £210. Alongside that, the precept contribution as a percentage of overall police resources varies. It is 18 to 20 per cent. for some forces, but for Surrey, among others, the figure is way up in the high 30s, if not 40-plus per cent.
Well, there we are; it is not quite 50 per cent. I said that. None the less, there should be a broadly similar service across the country. Of course there are specific needs, given factors such as deprivation, make-up and history, but those disparities are the sort of factors that will be addressed in the Lyons report and elsewhere. I half take the point made by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), but I do not accept it in the broader sense.
There is indeed a good story to tell, as there has been real-terms growth in police funding over recent years, but the formula needs attention, particularly in the east midlands. One of the flaws of the formula is that there is a lag between population growth and the rate at which grant rises. The per capita increases for the rapidly growing population in the east midlands, where the population growth rate is almost twice that of the rest of England, create problems as the years go by. The best example—or worst, depending on one’s point of view—is Lincolnshire, which is growing at a rate of 10 per cent. over 10 years. The population growth rate for England as a whole is less than 2.5 per cent. Will the lags in the system be addressed, so that the formula is more effective in the five east midlands forces, including Leicestershire?
Like other Departments, we seek to address those issues, but I take my hon. Friend’s point about the rapidity of some changes and the population increases in many areas, and not just the east midlands. The formula, or formulae, and other elements are perhaps not sufficiently able to keep pace with those increases. I have had discussions about the “growth areas” with colleagues in other Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government—I think that it calls itself CLG now; I do not know what happened to the D—to ensure that the police and security dimensions are considered in the early stages of any planned growth in an area. I take my hon. Friend’s point, including on the wider issue that I thought he was addressing, which was basically that there were flaws in the floors.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend to move away from arguments on distribution. Ipswich witnessed exceptional events before Christmas, but the police grant will not meet the full costs, so will the Minister say anything about how he can help Suffolk police authority with the additional and exceptional costs that have arisen? I do not refer just to next year’s settlement, but to the costs that it will have to meet before the end of this financial year.
I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the chance to intervene, because there are very specific circumstances relating to Suffolk, and particularly Ipswich, given the events that took place in the run-up to Christmas. Rather erroneously, one of the leading 24-hour news channels suggested yesterday—I do not know why—that we were somehow letting Suffolk down, and that it would carry a huge deficit because of those special circumstances, so it is useful to have a chance to explain the situation in more detail. The routine is that when exceptional events take place, whether they be the international events that took place in Surrey, or the murder inquiries in Suffolk before Christmas, constabularies apply to the Department for a special grant, outside of the settlement that we are talking about today. The claim is duly assessed by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in a routine fashion, and then passed to Ministers to make a decision. In the case of this financial year—
I have a whole answer to get through, rather than just a paragraph or a sentence, before I give way. I understand that there are significant local dimensions to the debate, and I will seek to take all interventions. I will then get back to my 20-minute speech, but not deliver the whole 20 minutes of it, if hon. Members follow what I am saying.
Suffolk has applied for some £9 million in special grant to deal with all its activities thus far. HMIC has determined that much of that claim is entirely reasonable, but this is only the first half of an extended special grant process, because pre-trial preparation and further investigations will carry on well into subsequent financial years. HMIC recommends to me that it is more than appropriate that the authority itself should cover about £1 million of the £9 million. These are examples, because the issues involved go far above and beyond those that we need to address, but at least some of the cost can be taken on board by the Suffolk police authority. It is suggested that we should pay £8 million, and I am convinced that that is absolutely right. We will tell Suffolk that we will provide £8 million of that £9 million request for this year.
As I said to colleagues from Ipswich and Suffolk when I met the murder inquiry teams and the chief constable—on, I think, 4 January—we will be very sympathetic, given the unusual circumstances faced by that relatively small force, and when the application is made for the second half of that special grant next year, we will treat the request in a similar, or better, way. I congratulate Suffolk constabulary on all it did over Christmas and beyond. It was an enormous task for such a small force. I thank all other forces for getting involved as readily as they did—it was a genuine exercise in working together. I assure the Suffolk force that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who was mentioned yesterday in this regard, and I have taken seriously and sympathetically its request for extra payment.
I recognise the risk of the debate becoming a surgery for individual complaints and problems, so I shall try to give my point a wider dimension. The Minister is aware that the Dyfed-Powys police authority argues that its police inflation costs exceed the inflation increases offered through the settlement. Is he willing to consider an environment where the Minister and the Department discuss at a macro level with the police forces how the funding settlements are reached? The police forces are not trying to rip anyone off. They just want their concerns to be taken on board in the formula. Perhaps that would resolve at a strategic level the kind of tactical issues that I would raise about Dyfed-Powys police and which many colleagues raise about their police forces.
Again, that is an entirely fair point and should form part of the broader debate that we need to have on all aspects of police finance, in the context of the huge growth that there has been in resources, and recognising that police forces have been using those resources efficiently and productively and want to grow beyond that. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s broad point and do not apologise to any Member for raising specific points about policing in a police settlement debate.
Does my hon. Friend agree that although we can celebrate the fact that Thames Valley police has a record number of officers—some 4,280, thanks to increased investment from the Government—the benefits are somewhat diminished by the attempts of neighbouring forces, including the Met, to poach fully trained officers from places like Reading and Slough? Is it not time that we considered transfer payments to compensate areas that are losing out for the costs of training and recruitment?
As a Middlesex MP, a London MP and probably a beneficiary of such a perverse relationship, if indeed such a perverse relationship exists, I should say that that is a fair point, which should be considered in a wider debate about police finance in more general terms.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. His charm and courtesy leave my noble Friend Lord Tebbit in the shade. I identify with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who is entirely right. Given that the Thames Valley police force has been able to balance its budget only by a £7 million cut in support costs, which is necessarily one-off and cannot be repeated next year, and that in 2008-09 the increase in revenue support grant still leaves a £15 million shortfall on required budget, how does the hon. Gentleman expect that Sara Thornton and her colleagues will cope in the face of a projected and substantial increase in the population of the region?
I was about to be hugely insulted when the hon. Gentleman started, but I was quite complimented by the time he got to the end of his opening remarks. I pay tribute to Thames Valley police and chief constable Sara Thornton for all that they have done. I have been up there two or three times in the wake of Project Overt, not least to go wandering through the woods around Wycombe to speak to young coppers who were there all the way up to 22 December, long after August and Project Overt. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the growing level of resources which, as I said, forces are using productively and efficiently, and they are still making efficiency gains and still seeking to grow. Whatever difficulties forces have in reaching their target with this year’s settlement, next year will present a more significant challenge for them to match their ambitions with the resource envelope.
That means that, on the basis of cross-party consensus, the sooner we have a substantive and hopefully non-partisan debate on the wider aspects of police finance, the better. With 67 per cent. increases and forces wanting to do far more than they have done, not least the Thames Valley force, which is hugely creative and imaginative in all that it does, I do not want to restrain them by flat-lining resources, even after huge increases. The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely fair point.
I should put on record again my enormous gratitude to Thames Valley for all that it did in Project Overt, not just in Wycombe, but beyond. With the agreement of the local treasury, we have hopefully sorted out the contribution from the centre towards the force’s resources spent on Project Overt.
May I take the hon. Gentleman’s helpful and conciliatory answer to mean that if the hon. Member for Reading, West and I get together, formulate a powerful case, arrange a meeting with him and advance it in our usual mellifluous and responsible terms, his answer will be yes?
My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned the influence of population on funding. May I ask the Minister respectfully to consider coastal areas where there are caravan parks where people live—they should not, but they do—for 12 months of the year? In my county, Denbighshire, it is estimated that there are 700 people living in caravan parks. Across the whole of north Wales, there are many thousands. Will my hon. Friend look into the matter and ensure that people living in caravan parks are recognised for the purposes of the police funding formula, and that sufficient funding is put in place?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which the formula seeks to address in the general sense of population. If we move to even greater complexity, rather like the local government report that we will discuss later, I am not sure how profitable that would be for policing, but the formula should be a mix that captures what is required in the national sense and is flexible enough to reflect local peculiarities of population, growth levels and other elements more readily than it does at present. It is a reasonable point, which I will consider.
I thank the Minister for the generous amount of time that he is giving to Back Benchers. May I ask him to look again at the settlement for north Wales? I know that we are all bidding for our own areas. He will recall in September, on an uncharacteristically wet day in St. Asaph, opening the new communications centre, which he said was cutting-edge technology, probably leading forces throughout England and Wales. In that spirit, is he prepared to meet a small delegation from the police authority and myself in order to discuss specific issues and, more broadly, rural policing and the financing thereof?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of St. Asaph. It was extremely interesting. Naturally, to kick off events in the marquee in the car park, with chandeliers and all that sort of thing, those present sang the national anthem in Welsh. I made sure that I did not, having learned from the experience of previous English occupants of significant positions.
If there is, as I believe there is, within the broad discussion, a need to focus on the specifics of Wales or the specifics of rural policing in the Principality or more generally, I will have that discussion, with respect, with a wider group than the hon. Gentleman suggests. I have seen the four Welsh authorities together and separately a number of times since taking over my present post in July. I have had discussions with a range of colleagues, particularly Labour MPs from north Wales, and there is still to come an outstanding meeting—not an outstanding MP—with a Tory colleague from north Wales. I am happy to have those meetings, but to deal adequately with the finance base in Wales and elsewhere, and with rural policing and the other points that the hon. Gentleman makes, we need a much wider debate than a series of meetings with individual MPs. I am happy to have such meetings, in a wider context.
The Minister will know that the Essex police force provided support to the Suffolk constabulary during its recent major inquiry. Given that he is seeking to encourage voluntary working together between forces on issues such as the vital fight against terrorism, may I remind him that the Essex police force has considerable experience in those fields because of the special facilities at Stansted and the assistance that it gave to the Met on 7/7? Will he bear that in mind when the protocols are being negotiated?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I shall not, but I hope that Essex and the other police forces with which it draws up those agreements and protocols will do so. I would say generally to the House that whatever people’s perspective on the strategic forces merger debate in the summer, I am impressed and heartened by the significant progress made throughout the country in talking to each other in practical terms about shared operations on a local basis, between forces or more regionally. We have heard about the east midlands region, where a lot of work is going on across the five forces in that regard. That is almost the reverse of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West. The proximity of Essex, Kent and some of the other home counties forces to the Metropolitan police means that there is a lot of positive operational two-way traffic and subsequent experience in relation not only to terrorism but to other serious matters that are more common in London and the home counties than elsewhere. I will certainly bear that in mind.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that many people in west Yorkshire wonder why we have a needs-based funding formula if it is not actually going to be implemented. I understand that West Yorkshire police has been underfunded to the tune of £15 million against the needs-based funding formula. Can the Minister confirm the level of underfunding for this year?
Let me make a practical suggestion as to how police budgets can be improved. Forces should be allowed to recover the full cost of policing events. For example, people who pay for expensive tickets for football matches and concerts at Roundhay park in Leeds effectively get free policing outside the event which is paid for by local council taxpayers and residents, who are also missing out on policing. Can the Minister—
Order. I think that that is sufficient for the time being.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s second point, but not his point about underfunding. While we might still be in a transitional phase in terms of fully implementing the new funding and therefore still have floors and ceilings, I would say as sharply as I can that he should go and talk to his hon. Friends in North Yorkshire, which is not a million miles away from his area, and ask them when they want to lose the positive contribution that they get from floors and ceilings. Then he could pop over to Cumbria and speak to his colleagues there: he still has some, including an ex-Home Office Minister. As regards football, if I was being facetious—which as a West Ham supporter I am not really entitled to be—I should not think that there are many crowds around Elland road or in Bradford at the moment.
The Minister has talked about population changes. In popular tourist resorts such as my constituency, the population doubles for three to eight months of the year, but that is not taken into account in the current formula, although the growth is year on year. The police have made that case to me, so will he seriously consider it?
I take my hon. Friend’s point in the same spirit as I have taken those from other Members. This extends to a broader debate about finance. I am sure that he is very happy about the growth in tourism on Anglesey, but that tourism is not new. Of course it has grown, and perhaps grown increasingly, but it did not drop out of the sky all of a sudden. It is not something extraordinary, as in some other cases.
I forgot to say to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that there are still a few London MPs, whether in Middlesex or Essex, who sit for the Conservatives. London benefits to the tune of some 33 per cent. through ceilings and floors, so perhaps he might like to talk to his colleagues there when he talks to those in North Yorkshire and Cumbria.
Bournemouth police are very concerned about the fact that tourism is not included in the formula, as is made clear on page 13 of the police grant document. The number of bars is taken into consideration, but not their size. We have 30,000 visitors on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday night. Elements nightclub has 3,000 visitors, compared with the Holyhead pub in Moordown, which has 30. That means that half the police on duty in Bournemouth are looking after a quarter of a square mile and denying the rest of Bournemouth the proper policing that it needs. Bournemouth police are overstretched, and because of the formula they will lose out year after year. I ask the Minister to consider that.
Bournemouth benefits from the floors and ceilings system rather than losing from it, so I do not know what the hon. Gentleman’s point is in that regard. I take the broader point that tourism and the night-time economy feature increasingly in the activities of many forces throughout the country. If they are not reflected sufficiently in the formula, then let us have a wider debate about police finance. These dimensions are increasingly reflected in the wider local government formula. Many of the comments that hon. Members are making about policing go to wider public service issues that are not specifically the domain of the police authority. We could have a significant debate, I hope on a non-partisan basis, about what we want from our police, what the resource base should be, what the mix between local and national contributions should be, what are—not only for London but elsewhere—discernibly national or regional issues that should be dealt with at that level rather than through local policing, and what the relationship should be between local neighbourhood policing, response policing and some of the wider strategic county-wide or region-wide issues, which is something that every force struggles with constantly.
The fact that I am the third MP from Derbyshire to intervene probably indicates the strength of feeling about the issue there. As regards the Minister’s comments about winners and losers under the floors and ceilings system, it is extraordinary that the losers should have to just bite their lips and get on with it. The Government introduced a new formula in 2006-07 precisely to address the fact that counties such as Derbyshire were historically underfunded over a long period. Under that new formula, the Government have said that Derbyshire should get another £5.7 million a year or so more, but with the next breath they are saying that we cannot have it. That is an extraordinary state of affairs. Derbyshire is currently funding the gap out of the reserves, but it cannot do that for much longer without having to slash policing in the county.
I am grateful to most Members for having made non-emotive and grown-up contributions. Talking about slashing this and slashing that is not helpful, nor is it true. Neither Derbyshire nor anywhere else will be slashing its way back to pre-1997 levels, and the hon. Gentleman should be careful about what he says. I give him the same exhortation that I gave to the hon. Member for Shipley—he needs to go and talk to his hon. Friend over in Cumbria, who benefits significantly from this. We are not saying, “We’ve got a new formula and we’re putting floors and ceilings in, so if you lose from it, go hang.” We are saying that we need, in all equity, to get to a stage where we can fully implement the new formula, but not in one hit; otherwise, this would be a substantially different debate. Funnily enough, there are few Liberals down in Devon and Cornwall, which also benefits significantly from the floors and ceilings aspect of the formula. I think that there is also the odd one—I mean numerically rather than in terms of the individual—in Norfolk, a very odd one in Sussex, and one in West Mercia too.
There must be some degree of national equity and some recognition that we need to buttress the full impact of any new formula. The “Little Derbyshire” approach taken by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), which is not shared by my hon. Friends who are more substantial Derbyshire MPs, is not good enough. People need to make the strongest arguments in the strongest terms with that wider police backdrop instead of talking about silly little issues for “Focus”.
The Minister mentioned Norfolk in response to a relevant point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). The Minister said that he was open minded, but does he accept that Norfolk has one of the lowest ratios of police officers to population and that under current proposals we will have 90 fewer police community support officers than promised? That reduced number is totally intolerable to local people.
Yes, but every single PCSO in Norfolk would not be there without the investment, resources and policy of the Government. I had a very constructive meeting with—I think, to be fair—the Conservative leader of the county council, a range of his officers and others, and we had a very interesting debate about exciting plans to take Norfolk forward. I wish him well in that regard and the plan has the full support of district councils, the county council and everybody else. They need to make the judgment—I cannot make it for them—in terms of where they set their precept and what they do with their budget, but they did express some very interesting plans to me.
I apologise to the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), as I was flicking open the Dorset page and had forgotten momentarily—I do not say this in any nasty way—that he had shifted seats, so I am glad that he said Norfolk; otherwise, I would have quoted liberally about Dorset.
Perhaps I should have been nastier, in that case.
To return to my speech—I will respond to individuals’ substantial contributions later if there is time—I hope hon. Members will indulge me if I do not dwell on the 20 pages left as a result of my taking so many interventions. I will just make some broad points.
I take seriously what hon. Members have said about damping the formula. Having looked, lived and breathed the figures for so long, I say in all sincerity that there is a need for a substantive debate on where we are going with the local element of police finance and the huge disparity between authorities. I do not say that in any way to cast doubt on how we have got to where we have. As I said to some hon. Members, history is largely responsible for it, but it cannot be right to have such a huge spread between the level of the precept and how much it contributes to the overall budget in what should be, taking account of variations in local circumstances, a national service delivered regionally and locally through constabularies. There will be issues around that.
I made a sedentary intervention earlier and the Minister noted that Surrey is virtually at 50 per cent. and will soon go through 50 per cent. of the precept. The problem for the people of Surrey is whether that means that, when it goes through the 50 per cent., the rules for Surrey police should be set by local residents rather than by the Government.
The balance between the two is partly what I have been referring to. I think I mean that in the context of the outliers on both ends of the scale. It is even more complex in the sense that those with lower precepts are not necessarily those that have the lower contributions from a local level to overall police budget. It is not as simplistic and linear as that. When I talk about collectively having a look at the finance base and the local contribution, I do not necessarily mean that everyone should gather up to the Surrey level in terms of a contribution, although I know the precept is high. Nor do I mean that everyone should be down at the Durham and Northumbria ends, where we are talking literally of £88 for a precept in one case and just more than £100 and some contributions of 18 and 20 per cent. in others.
There must be a way of collectively having a debate that is not about the national contribution or the level of funding from the centre, but perhaps more about round the edges. Increasingly, what are national policing issues—above and beyond things like counter-terrorism, which should be funded from the centre—need to be balanced by an argument about what the local contribution should be. I understand the point. It is specific at that end—in part, the Met, though it has a large population base, and Surrey and Sussex and one or two others—and at the other end historically are some other parts of the Met and some of the northern authorities.
When we get to a situation where there has been significant investment over 10 years and where it is flatlining or becoming less in terms of growth—growth is still way above inflation—and there are these tight and serious decisions to be made on a force by force basis, the flexibility around the local contribution is a serious element of the equation.
Significant representations have been made about the settlement. I think that we received some 40 written representations, covering some 26 police authorities, including letters from the Association of Police Authorities, chief constables, police authorities and MPs. Representations were made—interestingly, I think—chiefly in nine areas. They are the original level of the settlement, capping and council tax policy, continued use of a funding floor, police grant for the next three years—in terms of the comprehensive spending review for 2008-09 to 2010-11—capital provision for restructuring, neighbourhood policing, funding flexibilities, police efficiency and specific grants. Broadly, those issues were covered by hon. Members in today’s debate.
I understand that the Minister received representations from members of the Dyfed-Powys police authority, who were accompanied by a Minister from the Wales Office. The main issues were community support officers and how Dyfed-Powys producing its budget more prudently had worked against it. The Minister wanted to allow the authority to work towards having more community support officers, but not as many as it hoped to secure. Will the Minister comment on that?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that the meeting with the police authority and some MPs from Dyfed-Powys was focused on those issues. Given the accelerated targets for PCSOs by April 2007—ably assisted and funded by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to the tune of £90 million—Dyfed-Powys was one of the authorities that said that it would rather sit out from the target and then try and pick it up again subsequently. The authority was effectively penalised, through not fault of its own, so I promised that I would look again and see whether more funding could be found to get back on target—not just for Dyfed-Powys, but for Gwent and Cleveland. To be fair, we had squeezed the pot dry—if pots can be squeezed—to the extent that although I was pleased to find some moneys, I do not think that Dyfed-Powys should hold out much hope for further moneys from the centre as part of the exercise. I was pleased to find at least some.
The Minister went through the various representations that he had received. Earlier in his comments, he said that he did not want to restrain the police authorities by flatlining them. He has made it clear that one of the main concerns of police authorities is that, over the remainder of the comprehensive spending review, it looks as though there will be flatlining. I do not understand how the Minister can reconcile his earlier comments about not wanting to restrain police authorities by flatlining them with the fact that over the next two or three years of the comprehensive spending review, they are going to be flatlined.
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, that argument works only if police authorities are rather like a child and being spoon fed. If the resource base becomes static after 10 years of growth, there are ways in which police authorities and constabularies can look at everything they do to gain further efficiencies beyond what they do now.
The debate—in part, the wider financial debate—about contributions from the local level is one that I hope we can have. We need to see what the balance is and what it should be. It involves the notion of capping and the notion of the relationship between the local precept and the council tax. It involves the contribution from the centre and what it should be in all equity from local areas. There is much to be debated about that.
I take the point that we are achieving sustained, but far lower, growth over the comprehensive spending review periods than we have thus far. One of the advantages of two-year—and, hopefully, eventually three-year—settlements is that they can begin to be planned for. I do not accept the notion, which belies experience as well, that throughout those eight or 10 years of sustained and relatively high growth, all that police constabularies have done is put the money in their pocket and just carry on as they normally do. There have already been enormous efficiency gains across police authorities. Significant examination of how police authorities and constabularies do what they do has also taken place. To be fair, the picture today, 10 years on from 1997, of what they do and how they do it is enormously different. That must continue because things are ever changing.
To put it simply, the terrorism threat is enormous today compared with 1997. All forces work alongside local councils far more readily than they did 10 years ago on, for example, antisocial behaviour and community safety. There is now a genuine multi-agency approach, to use the lingo. The balance and mix throughout the country of police officers, police staff, other specialists and analysts is rightly different from the position 10 years ago. That should continue.
In short, police authorities and constabularies need to do significantly more in a different way with the high but fixed growth rate of resources. It is a case of much more than, “Daddy, stop giving us money, we can’t do things.” I appreciate that that is a generalisation of the comments of the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry); it is a form of short hand.
I shall now conclude my speech because I have been on my feet for 50 minutes or so, although about 30 minutes were taken up with interventions. I am grateful for interventions and happy to take them, but we need to move on. I also appreciate that there is a time limit on some hon. Members’ speeches.
The comprehensive spending review years and the multi-year settlement provide challenges, with which forces will start to wrestle as they settle their budgets this week. There has been a good efficiency record and I expect it to continue. I believe that the police authorities and constabularies want it to continue because the efficiencies that they make release funds to spend elsewhere rather than being clawed back to the centre.
There is a good news story about what police authorities have to do and where their priorities lie. We have listened carefully to all stakeholders in determining the detail of the settlement, which is a good one. Our proposals will ensure that all police authorities in England and Wales receive a fair share of resources next year. We have added to that some funding flexibility so that forces get the work force mixes right locally, balance their budgets and continue to improve the service.
I am sorry that I have taken slightly longer than I anticipated but I appreciate the local dimensions to the debate and I wanted to take as many interventions as possible. I commend the police grant report to the House.
I thank the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety for setting out the grant settlement for this year, but I fear that what he said left many questions unanswered.
It is clear that the police fear that the 3.6 per cent. increase in their budget this year means that money is already tight. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities estimate that the police service needs an annual 5 per cent. increase in its budget simply to stand still. The president of ACPO said:
“To maintain … high standards, the Government must maintain sufficient levels of funding. Demands on the police service mean that although the 3.6 per cent. settlement for the service remains above inflation, our expenditure increases at a far greater rate, a fact that must be reflected in our financial allocations. The Government has planned an ambitious programme for police development in the years ahead, but this settlement is not a springboard for it.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so soon in his response. As a fellow Sussex Member, he knows that Sussex police have been asked to do more and more. The settlement will make it much harder for them to deliver the target of 525 police community support officers, for which they budgeted under earlier Government commitments. The current plan will leave them with 171 fewer PCSOs. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in his constituency and mine, that represents a genuine disappointment for people who appreciate PCSOs and know that they do a valuable job, especially on low-level vandalism and antisocial behaviour?
I agree. The consequence of the so-called flexibility that the Minister mentioned is the withdrawal of the promise of 171 PCSOs in Sussex, or 8,000 nationally—4,000 in the so-called respect areas that the Government announced only a week ago. Chief constables throughout the country were busy making promises to communities about the additional policing that they believed that they could provide. They will now be unable to do that.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the cut in the target for PCSOs. In Gloucestershire, that translates into 74 PCSOs that we were expecting and needed, but will not now get.
An additional problem is that the one-off funding that is being provided in lieu of the permanent final tranche is heavily skewed towards London and the Metropolitan Police Authority. In Gloucestershire, that means only £167,000 in one-off funding instead of the £1 million in permanent funding that we expected. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?
I agree. The Metropolitan Police Authority received the lion’s share of the remaining funding, although the Government withdrew £70 million. The Met received approximately two thirds of what remained, leaving the provincial forces even shorter of resources. That means that they cannot provide the promised number of PCSOs.
As ACPO’s head of finance pointed out, the settlement is not all that it seems. A range of specific grants, for example, for forensics, supports the general grant. In most cases, they have been frozen. Consequently, as ACPO’s head of finance, Dr. Tim Brain, who is also chief constable of Gloucestershire, said, the overall value of the general grant to forces and authorities has been substantially reduced. That will put further pressure on force budgets.
In my force in Sussex, the special formula grants for rural policing, forensic testing, special priority payments and south-east allowances will remain unchanged and frozen at last year’s levels. That amounts to a cut of 2.8 per cent. in real terms and will cause the force and the authority problems.
The hon. Gentleman has been told that police inflation is some 5 per cent. However, a significant part of police expenditure is on pay. The settlement this year was 3 per cent. and the formula was 3.6 per cent. How does he calculate 5 per cent. inflation for the total budget? I am interested in his reply.
The hon. Gentleman is right: more than 80 per cent. of a police force’s budget is spent on pay. Pay increases generally outstrip the rate of inflation because the pay settlement is index linked. Other costs increase as the police’s mission widens. Consequently, as the Minister pointed out, forces have to make efficiency savings year after year.
The genuine question is not about this year, when forces are already beginning to face difficulties, but about future years under the comprehensive spending review. The Minister alluded to that, but we need to examine the matter. From next year, which is the first year of the comprehensive spending review settlement, the Home Office budget will be frozen in real terms, and the police have been told to expect an increase of no more than 2.7 per cent. It could be less than that. Consequently, police budgets from next year onwards will be frozen in real terms.
The Association of Police Authorities and ACPO estimate that, by 2010-11—the third year of the proposed settlement—the police could face a funding gap of as much as £966 million. To put that in context, the police’s annual national budget is £10 billion, so we are considering a potential funding gap, as set out by the APA and ACPO, of 10 per cent. of the national policing budget. That will pose very serious challenges for the police. In a document called “Sustainable Policing”, the associations point out that the risk posed by under-resourcing is not that policing will suddenly collapse, but that with the contraction of capability the services provided to communities will erode, and particular functions will either be withdrawn entirely or unable to perform to acceptable levels.
Concerns are already being expressed up and down the country about the funding that police forces might have in future. The Police Federation has gone so far as to claim that 999 calls could take longer to answer, and that the number of fully trained officers will be reduced. I will refer to that in moment. The Hampshire force is already looking to make a 10 per cent. cut in services in the next financial year, according to the local police federation, and if there is no significant increase in funding, which there will not be, its police authority predicts that it will have to make a cut of 20 per cent. the following year. Durham constabulary is axing 100 police officer jobs and in the next financial year plans cuts of £3 million. Surrey has described its budget for the forthcoming year as insufficient. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has said, Sussex is predicting a budget deficit of £6 million and cutbacks. North Yorkshire police considers the situation sufficiently dire that the police authority predicts that even a 5 per cent. increase—which it will not get—would leave a £3 million deficit next year. West Mercia predicts a £1 million gap in funding, with further more acute financial concerns over the next three years.
My hon. Friend has outlined several areas, including my county of Hampshire, that are experiencing great difficulty in delivering services, and yet we continually hear from the Government about policies such as increasing visible policing, which are not matched by the budgets to ensure delivery. The people who are left to pick up the pieces and deal with disgruntled residents, however, are the police, not Ministers.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Hampshire and other police authorities up and down the country will face a loss of promised police community support officers—there will be 206 fewer—which will affect her constituency of Basingstoke and others. The chairman of the police authority finance committee has expressed concern about that. It is a pity that in an area where, for instance, the non-emergency 101 number was piloted and customer satisfaction has increased as a consequence, the other side of the equation is a reduction in the front-line policing promised by the Government, diminishing the service available to the public.
Is not there another dimension that has not yet been raised in the debate? Given the overall chaos in the Home Office in relation to prisoner numbers and the need for new prison building, is not the danger that the police part of the Home Office budget will be squeezed even more than is projected?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the police have expressed fear that although the indicated 2.7 per cent. annual increases would be at or around the level of inflation, they could be less than that. We should therefore question whether it was sensible for the Chancellor to take the Home Office out of the comprehensive spending review at such an early stage and to freeze its budget. That prompts questions about how seriously the Government are taking the security and policing challenges to which the Minister alluded. As my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has made clear, there is a case for putting the Home Office back within the comprehensive spending review to allow a proper assessment of the challenges facing the country, rather than assessing the priorities of other Departments but making a presumption that the Home Office budget is frozen, which does not seem to make sense.
Would the hon. Gentleman put those so-called cuts in historical perspective? Is it true that the previous Conservative Government cut the number of police officers by 1,000? Was that cut the result of rising, static or falling policing expenditure? In contrast, in the past 10 years under Labour, an extra 14,000 officers have been provided.
No, it is not true that there was a cut in police officers. There was a rise in the number of police officers under the previous Conservative Governments. We are debating whether policing will be sustainably financed going forward. Yes, there has been an increase in police officer and community support officer numbers. We are now seeing that increase not only starting to fall off but numbers being cut. That does not seem to be sustainable or to make sense.
The Government have reneged on promises made as recently as the last general election in relation to police community support officers. There is a serious question that needs to be addressed not just by the Minister but by the Government as a whole, as the Chancellor has effectively made those decisions. Whether that has been a consequence of him playing political games with successive Home Secretaries, or of an error of judgment in freezing the Home Office budget, it does not seem sensible to exclude the Home Office from the comprehensive spending review.
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in the middle of his mildly pathetic political rant. I hope that he will get back to the issue of policing. How can he describe an increase in the neighbourhood policing fund next year of 41 per cent. as a cut? Will he please not seek, however erroneously, to mislead the House?
Order. We are careful about the words that we use in debates. Would the hon. Gentleman care to rephrase his last remarks?
I thought that my use of the word “erroneous” covered that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If it did not, I withdraw the remark.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the neighbourhood policing fund will increase by 41 per cent. next year, and that the “cuts” that he talks about ought to be considered in that context?
The Minister knows perfectly well that I was talking about cuts in promised police community support officers, and there has indeed been a cut in the neighbourhood policing fund, to which I will refer in a moment.
Let us be clear about who has provided the additional resources for extra police officers. In 1996-97, almost 85 per cent. of police forces’ gross revenue expenditure was financed through Government. In 2006-07, the latest year for which figures are available, the proportion is expected to fall to 60 per cent. The amount of police spending financed through council tax has therefore doubled in real terms between 2001 and 2006-07. Council tax now accounts for more than 21 per cent. of police force expenditure finance, compared with 12 per cent. in 2001-02. The Government and Labour Members like to claim that they have recruited additional police officers. They have not recruited additional police officers; council tax payers up and down the country have done so.
I support what the hon. Gentleman says. In the past two years, our previous chief constable went around the whole of Devon and Cornwall imploring people to support an increase in council tax for additional officers and so on. The people responded that that was what they wanted to do. They have given the money, but they have seen all the advances taken away. Some of them are now saying, “We want our money back.”
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. People have paid the increases in council tax, they will pay the increase in council tax this year, and they are entitled to expect the service increases that they were promised as a consequence. One of those was the promise of 24,000 police community support officers in the Government’s manifesto, on which they have reneged. The Government should apologise to people for that.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but that is not a point of order. [Interruption.] Order. He ought to know better than to try to raise a bogus point of order on what is, in fact, a matter of debate. Hon. Members listened with great courtesy to the Minister, and I suggest that they do the same to the hon. Gentleman who is now addressing the House.
Of all the fatuous points that the Minister has made so far, that was one of the most fatuous. Of course the police precept is an element of council tax, and it is absurd to claim otherwise.
The Minister raised the specific issue of the neighbourhood policing fund. I have here a letter sent by the head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Ken Jones, when the Minister announced the so-called flexibilities in the fund. He wrote:
“The Home Office have now decided that only £35 million of the £105 million is to be returned to us. I am urgently seeking clarity as to the destination of the £70 million and whether the £35 million is available year on year or is a one off grant.”
Where has that £70 million gone? It has been cut from the neighbourhood policing fund; if the Minister can tell me where it has gone, I shall be grateful. As for the £35 million that remains, as I told the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), the Home Office has decided to allocate £20 million to the Metropolitan Police Service. That leaves just £15 million to be distributed to forces across England and Wales. The Government like to dress this up as flexibility, but in the words of the president of ACPO,
“Being given the flexibility to manage decline is not a position we have sought.”
In the same way, the Government announced changes in the crime fighting fund and said that those amounted to new flexibilities. Actually, “announced” is not the right word, because the Government have signally failed to make that announcement to the House despite repeated requests from Conservative Members. The Association of Police Authorities instructed its members not to obtain any publicity for the change.
As a consequence of this “flexibility”, it is possible that police numbers will fall in the future, something that would have been prevented in the past by the tight operation of the crime fighting fund. Conservative Members welcome flexibility if it is to be used sensibly, for instance to release front-line police officers from administrative tasks that they should not be performing and return them to the beat where the public want to see them. The fear is, however, that as a result of the freezing of the Home Office budget and tight future financial settlements, that will not happen.
Only yesterday, we learnt that police officer numbers had fallen by 173 between March and September last year. The significant element is not that they fell by that small amount, but that this may be the beginning of a worrying trend. As the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association has said,
“This is a trend we will see continue because the financial position for forces is very serious. The only way they can balance the books is to lose staff.”
That echoes concerns expressed by forces and by ACPO.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to me again. He is being very generous.
In my constituency, Basingstoke, there are only seven front-line police constables on duty at any one time. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that a lack of visible policing is doing little to promote a culture in which antisocial behaviour and fear of crime in the community can be reduced?
I do share my hon. Friend’s concern. There is little point in increasing the number of police officers if they are to be tied up with bureaucracy, unable to do what they wish to do and what the public want to see them doing—get out on to the beat to deter and engage with criminals, detect crime, make arrests and so on. Less than a fifth of a police officer’s time is currently spent on the beat. The figures that my hon. Friend gives for a town as large as Basingstoke are remarkable, but I suspect they are replicated throughout the country.
We, and the Government, should be focusing on how to get resources to the front line, particularly in an environment in which resources will be tight. One thing that the Government should do is take a careful look at the costs of their own administration, and the costs of the central direction that they have imposed on police authorities and the police force. I have been investigating something called the police and crime standards directorate. I do not know whether my hon. Friends know what that is; they may be interested to learn that it is a directorate at the Home Office with 150 staff and an annual budget of £205 million.
I have been looking into what the police and crime standards directorate does. It includes something called a local delivery unit, which costs £0.8 million a year—£0.8 million spent centrally to ensure local delivery. There is a partnership performance and support unit which costs £2.3 million, but there is also a performance and partnership policy unit which costs another £2.3 million. I shall be happy to give way if the Minister would like to tell me the difference between the partnership performance and support unit and the performance and partnership policy unit, and why those units are so important to driving up standards in policing.
There is also something called the performance framework and assessment unit. That costs another £5.3 million. There is something else called the police standards unit, which costs a further £20 million. All that money would have gone quite a long way towards preserving the police community support officers who are being cut from our communities.
The latest document published by the police standards unit is called “Co-ordination of performance assessment and support activity”, and is described as
“A joined-up approach from the Home Office”.
Such an approach would certainly be welcome and, it could be argued, unusual. Much of the document, which has been sent to bewildered police forces up and down the country, is completely incomprehensible. I decided to read no further than page 6 when I saw the third bullet point:
“Possible courses of action flowing from this consideration include… No action to take”.
Is it not time for the Government seriously to review the cost of all the agencies that are seeking to interfere in and direct policing, the proliferation of those agencies, and the overlap between them? A significant sum of money is now being spent at the centre to direct policing. At a time when Home Office budgets are frozen and Ministers appear to have lost the argument with the Treasury about whether that will continue for the next three years, it behoves the Home Office itself to ensure that its own spending is moderated so that resources can reach the front line.
The Government claim that they have cut the number of forms that police officers are having to fill in. They say that they have freed up thousands of police officers, and have made 7,700 forms obsolete across 43 forces. Indeed, they now claim that that number of obsolete forms has risen to 9,000. When I asked the Minister what those forms were, it transpired that the Government kept no record of the information. According to the Police Federation, it is extremely unlikely that anyone could establish whether the forms that have been withdrawn were significant, or whether any real savings had been made.
We know, however, that the Government have introduced a very important new form which has reduced the amount of time that police officers are able to spend policing our streets properly. That is the stop form, which takes eight minutes for each officer to complete. In fact, the trend has been not to cut the number of forms and the amount of bureaucracy, but to increase the volume of red tape under which the police are labouring.
When we debated the financial settlement here last year, we were still discussing the potential cost of police force mergers. Since then those mergers have been abandoned, leaving police forces with a bill that has not been met in its entirety by the Home Office. That is another item of expenditure that police forces up and down the country are having to cover. As the chairman of the Sussex police authority has said:
“We have been short-changed by the Government and now the council tax payers of Sussex are being asked to pay for the failure of an unwanted Government initiative. We warned them that an enforced merger would never work and - lo and behold - it didn’t.”
In this context, the Minister has said nothing, albeit I accept that he called for a debate on the future of policing. Perhaps there should have been a debate on how forces are to make arrangements in terms of closing the gap and strengthening their protective services. We will have to return to that issue, because despite the abandonment of mergers, police forces share services not only to reduce costs, but also to make sure that they are able to make significant investments and deal with cross-border crime.