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Dyfed-Powys Police

Volume 467: debated on Wednesday 21 November 2007

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkins, after what has been a marathon day for issues affecting Wales.

Indeed, it has been Welsh day in Westminster Hall with debates on Welsh ports, the Barnett formula and now the critical issue of police funding as it affects Dyfed-Powys. I am delighted to have secured this debate as we move towards publication of the policing grant report.

It would be inappropriate to comment on the sudden retirement of the force’s chief constable on Monday evening because investigations are continuing, and I do not propose to go down that route, however much the media might suspect my motives for the debate.

I pay tribute to the continuing success of Dyfed-Powys police in providing a widely respected police presence. It is assessed as performing well in challenging circumstances, and in particular it has established a reputation in UK policing as a leader on child protection issues, and that deserves recognition.

The Minister does not need reminding of the area covered by the force, and the number of Members on the Benches around me indicate that it covers the largest police territory of any force in England and Wales. It covers Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, and other constituencies. That is more than half of Wales’s land mass, and parts of the area are sparsely populated. Despite that challenge, the latest police performance assessment gives Dyfed-Powys police an “excellent” mark in three out of seven categories, and a “good” mark in a further two categories. There is no doubt that the force has a record to be proud of. It is ranked joint 3rd-4th of all forces in England and Wales, and comes top of the family of rural forces. It has the highest detection rate per 1,000 population of any force in the UK, and the lowest crime rate.

One of the force’s excellent marks is for the category of resources and efficiency, in recognition of its impressive work in modernising its work force, ensuring that civilian staff rather than officers handle the more administrative side of the force’s work. Much remains to be done, but the force has made great progress. The force was at the forefront of the move to employ civilians to run custody suites under the management of a custody sergeant, and the local feeling is that that has been successful. Civilian staff at its communication centre are complemented by six officers working in different sectors, in contrast with other forces where a much greater proportion of officers work in call centres.

The force is ahead of the game in many ways. It has engaged in collaborative projects with other Welsh forces, so that, where appropriate, resources can be pooled and efficiency savings made. The four Welsh forces have a formally constituted committee, the Police Authorities of Wales, which provides governance for a range of collaborative activities. On serious and organised crime, and on counter-terrorism, the four forces are already sharing information and practices. The Tarian centre is well known for its effective work. The point is that while there may be opportunities for efficiencies in support services, they are limited in comparison with efficiencies that other forces might make, because they have already been made.

In providing the background to the debate, we must not underestimate the huge expense and manpower commitment that the four Welsh forces were forced to undertake following the Government’s abandonment of their plans to merge those forces into one. According to figures provided by the Police Authorities of Wales, when that policy was abandoned in July last year, some 30,000 hours of police officer work had been wasted in preparation, and, according to Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, about £1.5 million was spent in the process. There are other cost pressures on the force. For instance, the Assembly Government’s decision to phase out the rural relief scheme and to replace it with a small business scheme will mean extra costs of some £100,000 for the force.

The Minister will agree that Dyfed-Powys has a remarkably successful history of participating in the fight against serious and organised crime and in counter-terrorism through collaborative work, while keeping its focus fundamentally on good-quality rural policing. The police have done good work on developing their neighbourhood strategies, the problems of which are compounded by the huge challenges of rurality. When I talk to police officers, as I did in my constituency in Aberystwyth on Monday, I hear of the vast distances that neighbourhood police officers have to cover. The fear—the perception on the ground—is that, far from delivering neighbourhood policing more effectively, the police will have to retreat from it.

I concur with my hon. Friend on the police’s work and on neighbourhood beat officers—similar things are developing in my constituency. The one disappointment is that we do not have enough community support officers. They were promised to the force, and people would have more confidence that they could go about their daily lives without fear of interruption if more officers were visible.

I am grateful for that observation. There are limitations to the kind of services that such officers can provide—in my constituency, they cease work at about 10 o’clock at night—but they can make an immense contribution, particularly to public perception because of their visibility on the streets and lanes of our constituencies. Certainly, there is a perception within the Dyfed-Powys police authority that it was short-changed to the tune of around 15 officers. Approaches were made to the Home Office, which, to its credit, gave more money, but it was not enough and there is still a significant shortfall.

The comprehensive spending review has frozen the Home Office budget in real terms—there is no doubt that there is a tight settlement. If the funding grant were calculated this year as it has been in previous years, the authority would undoubtedly have to make some tough choices. We are arriving at the central reason that I organised this debate, namely, to question whether, in the context of such a tight spending round this year, it is the right time for the Government to propose changes to the police funding formula that could remove vital funding lines for rural services for forces such as Dyfed-Powys. A Department for Communities and Local Government consultation proposes folding the rural police grant into a general grant and tapering the floor grant over the CSR period. The authority estimates that, taken together, those things will mean a loss of £6.5 million per annum by the end of the review period, which is equivalent to 150 police officers.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when the Dyfed-Powys police authority came here to brief the region’s Members, it expressed concern about how the consultations had taken place and the fact that the Welsh police authorities were initially left out. It was also concerned that some of the changes were proposed because data were not available and were not factored into the Welsh figures. That is no fault of the Welsh police authorities, it is simply that there are no statistics.

We might not be in the same party, but we were at the same meeting and share the same concerns. Dyfed-Powys perceived that it had been marginalised in the process, which is ongoing, and we expect a report fairly soon. Some of the data and criteria for judging those matters are inapplicable to the areas that we aspire to represent.

The authority is concerned at the loss of 150 police officers. Given that the authority has only limited scope to make further efficiency savings, there could be a problem for rural policing in Wales. When the rural policing grant was introduced in the late 1990s, there was cross-party acceptance of the need to recognise additional cost pressures faced by rural forces. Let me assure the Minister that those cost pressures still exist—indeed, because of rising fuel prices, for instance, the pressures are greater still. If the rural policing grant is removed, rural forces, of which Dyfed-Powys is the largest, will find themselves in a dire budgetary position. In all the scenarios presented before the ongoing consultation, Dyfed-Powys would face major deficits.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it feels almost as if Dyfed-Powys is being punished for having such a good record on keeping crime down? Does he also agree that people who live in sparsely populated areas have every right to expect their service to be maintained, whether in Montgomeryshire or Ceredigion? At the end of the day, their demands are not great, and they have been well satisfied until now, but they are concerned that services will be cut back even from their current levels.

I use the term “rural entitlement”. Whichever part of Wales we work or live in, we have the same rural entitlement in principle. Frankly, I am fed up with my constituents complaining to me about alleged operational decisions that are forced on Dyfed-Powys police force by the inadequacies of current funding, which, if things continue, will become far worse.

The floor grant was introduced in recognition of the fact that the current funding formula was unfair and in need of review. If a taper is introduced in the context of such a tight settlement, it will increase the difference between funding for different forces. The exemplar provided in the DCLG document revealed that shire police authorities in England would lose between £4.3 and £10.7 million, which indicates the scale of the loss that Dyfed-Powys would face.

That brings me to the wider point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) about the inadequacies of the consultation with Welsh police authorities. The fact that I must look at exemplars referring to the English shires rather than practice in rural Wales is of great concern. There is a statutory requirement for Government to consult police authorities on any change in formula grant distribution, but copies of the consultation were not sent to Welsh authorities, and the exemplar work excludes Wales. That cannot be right.

When Dyfed-Powys queried the matter with the Home Office, it was told to send submissions directly to the Home Office as opposed to DCLG. Wales has been totally overlooked throughout the process, and I hope that the Minister will recognise that and ensure that it never happens again.

In the face of what are expected to be no better than flat-rate increases for UK police forces overall, expected efficiency targets and substantial cashable efficiency targets, Dyfed-Powys is likely to face significant budgetary pressure. Unless the authority gets increases of more than 4.5 per cent per annum, it predicts that baseline services will be reduced.

The Minister and the Department have in the past acknowledged the need to reform the police formula funding methodology, which I would support. We need a more transparent, open and wholesale review of the process, involving all police authorities in England and Wales. Such a review would look at the accuracy and appropriateness of indicators, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr. It should ensure that the data it uses are available across England and Wales. For instance, the log of bars per hectare measure discriminates against a rural area; why not use a log of bars per 100,000 population? Indicators on economic migration are also inadequate. In my village, just north of Aberystwyth, the population multiplies by five in the summer months. That needs to be factored in.

In previous years, the council tax precept has borne the brunt of budget shortfalls. In 1998, the precept made up 15 per cent. of Dyfed-Powys’s budget; it now makes up 35 per cent. of the funding needed to maintain the force.

Those problems exist without the proposed funding formula changes. I might be repeating myself, but it is critical to ask whether, in the context of such a tight spending review, it is time to scrap the rural policing grant and taper floor support following such minimal and inadequate consultation with Welsh forces.

Dyfed-Powys police authority has told me that the scale and impact of the proposals will be completely devastating to the force—a force with such an impressive record. On that sad and sobering note, I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on securing the debate and on the measured but powerful way in which he made his case, which was extremely helpful. He has some of the other Welsh Members from the area with him, including the hon. Members for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). May I also say how much I welcome the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)? He and I have spent many hours together in various Northern Ireland Committees and on various pieces of Northern Ireland business. I am very pleased that all those hon. Members are present. They are all assiduous in campaigning for their constituents. Whatever the political differences between us, the reason that they are all here this afternoon is to do what they can to ensure that their constituents have the best possible service. I commend them for that, particularly the hon. Member for Ceredigion.

I shall start by setting out the context and the existing situation. Since 1997, the Dyfed-Powys police force, like every other police force in England and Wales, has received substantial and significant increases in Government grant. In the past decade, Dyfed-Powys has seen a 20 per cent. increase in real terms in central Government grant. That is a huge investment in local policing. Dyfed-Powys police force is receiving £51.8 million in general grant this year—an increase of 3.6 per cent. from 2006-07. That is in line with the broadly flat rate increase of 3.6 per cent. for all forces in England and Wales. On top of the general grant, Dyfed-Powys will receive about £13 million from a range of other Government funding.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the product of that significant investment from both central and local resources is clear. On 31 March this year, Dyfed-Powys had 1,177 police officers, compared with 1,005 10 years ago—an increase of 172, which is 17 per cent. The number of support staff had grown from 322 to 594—an increase of 272, which is virtually 85 per cent. All those extra support staff help to release more officers for front-line duties, where we all want to see them. They are also supported by 77 police community support officers.

I very much welcomed the intervention by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. PCSOs will do sterling work not only in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, but in constituencies in the rest of the Dyfed-Powys area, the rest of Wales and, indeed, in England. We need to demonstrate continually our support for them. They do a different job from that of police officers, but they do an excellent job, for which I am sure that most of our constituents are very grateful, so I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman intervened on that point.

Let us not focus just on inputs. In 2006-7, total recorded crime was down, violent crime was down and burglary was down from the year before. Like the hon. Member for Ceredigion and the other hon. Members, I pay tribute to all those in Dyfed-Powys police whose efforts have contributed to that.

Dyfed-Powys police have been supported by the funding floor for many years to ensure that they have had year-on-year increases in grant. This year, Dyfed-Powys police are receiving £4.5 million more than their strict police funding formula allocation. Part of that additional money comes from grant that would otherwise go to South Wales police, but the vast bulk of the support for Dyfed-Powys—£3.6 million—comes from additional money provided by the Home Office from outside the general grant settlement.

I have set all that out to establish the context and to make clear the situation of Dyfed-Powys. However, I know that the hon. Member for Ceredigion is keen to look to the future. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will know, normally I try to answer specifically the questions that are raised, so I apologise that I cannot be as specific today as I would normally be in such a debate. I hope that the hon. Member for Ceredigion will find in the future that when I answer questions as a Minister, I actually try to answer the question. However, I cannot do that at present, for which I apologise. He will appreciate that we will be announcing very shortly details of the police funding settlement for the next three years, so I cannot give details today, much as I would like to pre-empt that announcement. Obviously, he would like to know about all of that.

I very much hope that the spirit of the debate is a continuing dialogue between Dyfed-Powys, the Home Office and hon. Members. Would the Minister be prepared to accept a delegation from Dyfed-Powys police authority and perhaps a cross-party gathering of the MPs for the area to express concerns and hear some of the straight-talking answers to which he has referred? We would very much appreciate such a dialogue with him.

I am always happy to meet hon. Members and their constituents. I shall talk to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing about that, but certainly I would be prepared to meet the hon. Gentleman, his parliamentary colleagues and some of his constituents to discuss these matters.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the three-month consultation on formula grant distribution that took place over the summer and closed in mid-October. The consultation was preceded by several meetings of the police allocation formula working group, a Home Office-chaired group that includes representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities, which considered possible changes to the funding formula. I will say, slightly defensively, that one member of the group was the director of finance and resources for Dyfed-Powys, so the hon. Gentleman can be sure that the interests of his local force were properly represented in that forum.

We received responses from most police forces or authorities, including from three of the Welsh forces, which I hope provides some reassurance that the consultation included consultation with and representations from Welsh forces. We have considered very carefully the representations from all police stakeholders received in response to the public consultation. That includes the representations from the Welsh forces, including those from the former chief constable of Dyfed-Powys. We have noted his concerns, particularly about sweeping rule 2 grants, which are specific to rural policing, into the general pot. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Dyfed-Powys police force has a particular interest in the rural policing fund. That is not surprising, because with 4,225 square miles, it covers the largest area of any force in England and Wales.

Let me be clear: the purpose of the consultation paper was not to disadvantage rural authorities. Our intention was to take the views of the police service on a range of options. One of those was to ensure that we were using the most up-to-date data in calculating the police funding formula. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues talked about ensuring that we use the correct data.

The other option concerned ways to convert funding from specific grants, which can be used for a specific purpose, to general grant, which can be spent at the discretion of police authorities. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, there is a tension between grants for specific purposes, which in many respects people like because they say that the money goes to an earmarked pot—a specific thing—and the representations that we often receive from the APA and chief constables that that money should not be ring-fenced, and that it should all be put in a general pot so that it can be used in the way that they feel is appropriate in their local area. There is a balance to strike between those two positions.

The Minister will understand that there is a particular concern in a rural area such as that covered by Dyfed-Powys police. We are worried that if we do not have that ring-fenced money we will lose out overall. We tend to feel a bit discriminated against for being rural. With huge areas being covered by a few police officers—from Welshpool to Machynlleth in my case—we think that we will continually have to cut back without that money. What assurances can the Minister give us that that will not be the case?

The only reassurance that I can give the hon. Gentleman is that we have heard the point about the importance of the specific grant for rural policing for the huge areas of Dyfed-Powys and of some other forces in England and Wales. We have heard the representations, and we are considering them alongside others.

Hon. Members will have to wait until the police funding settlement announcement for the Government’s conclusions on the matters about which we consulted. However, in order to reassure the hon. Gentleman, we are not going to implement changes that would jeopardise the stability of the entire finance system for police authorities. As in previous years, the settlement announcement will be followed by a six-week consultation period, and that may be when we should have the meeting that was referred to earlier. We will, of course, take account of any further representations that he or his hon. Friends may wish to make; there will be a further opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to represent his constituents.

I know that the hon. Member for Ceredigion is interested in the impact of local tourism, and that he recently tabled parliamentary questions about the use of a tourism indicator. There is little more I can add. The current formula was consulted on in the summer of 2005, and introduced in 2006-07 after a comprehensive review in which representatives from ACPO and the APA were involved. The review concluded that there was no accurate measure of tourism impacts, and it therefore did not include them in the new formula. Dyfed-Powys benefited from the revised formula changes, and its position was further protected by the application of a virtually flat-rate grant increase for all police authorities for both 2006-07 and 2007-08.

One of the real successes of recent years has been the roll-out of neighbourhood policing, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. However, Dyfed-Powys was one of three forces that were inadvertently disadvantaged by the decision to alter the funding arrangements for community support officers and neighbourhood policing in 2007-08, which was announced in a written ministerial statement by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) when he was Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety. The three forces had not previously been able to commit to early acceleration in the roll-out of neighbourhood policing, so made representations that they needed further help to complete neighbourhood policing coverage in their areas. We were pleased to be able to find some money to help them get back on track. For Dyfed-Powys, it amounted to £186,000 towards the cost of an additional 12 PCSOs.

Finally, I want to say something about force efficiency, to which the hon. Member for Ceredigion referred. Dyfed-Powys has a good record of delivering efficiency gains over and above the targets set since 1999-2000. However, over the coming years, increasing efficiency and productivity will become more important. Forces will have to work together and across communities, and take every opportunity to deliver services more effectively. I take the point made by the hon. Gentleman about good collaboration between the four police forces in Wales and the way in which they are trying to develop that relationship into an ever-closer partnership. Many forces have already gained from working in that way.

I conclude by saying that I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends in due course. The best time will probably be after the settlement has been announced, when they will be able to see the figures and what has happened. He can then make further representations if he wishes. I say again that Dyfed-Powys has received significant additional money. There will always be a debate about whether more resources are needed and about how they should be deployed.

I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Dyfed-Powys police on its excellent record in financial management and in fighting crime and making people feel safer. Today’s debate has been an important contribution to that, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on the measured and constructive way in which they put their case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Five o'clock.