House of Commons
Wednesday 4 February 2009
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I have regular discussions concerning a range of topics with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I am not entirely sure that that answers my question. My constituents pay the same taxes as the people of Scotland, yet receive £2,243 a year less public expenditure. Why should every man, woman and child in my constituency pay an extra £2,200 to subsidise the Scottish Government?
That is not the case at all. The four nations of the United Kingdom are, of course, stronger together. We gain great strength from the cohesiveness of that unique union of the United Kingdom. I think the hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on the fact that there is higher spending on policing in England, that the rate of growth in health spending is 7 per cent. in England while in Scotland it is 4 per cent. and that Sure Start is available in England and not in Scotland, and so much else besides. Of course, it is an issue for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament how they allocate the specific funding available to them.
One of the areas to benefit under the Barnett formula is education, yet colleges of education, including those run by South Lanarkshire council in my constituency, are turning away thousands of potential trainees. Following his meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and if he has plans to meet the First Minister, will the Secretary of State raise the importance of further education and ensure that those people who are demanding training and retraining are not denied it under the Administration in Edinburgh?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I plan to meet the First Minister, the CBI and the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Scotland next month to discuss those and other issues. Further education colleges in Scotland support about half a million Scots every year, including in Lanarkshire. It is essential that those who are unemployed in Scotland, those who need retraining and those who need apprenticeships can gain from those apprenticeships, and that the necessary Government investment is put in place. At the moment, the proposals brought forward by the Scottish SNP Government do not meet that ambition.
It is clear from the Conservative question that the Conservatives want to continue to cut the Scottish budget. Of course, the UK Labour Government’s position is also to cut £1 billion from the Scottish budget. Does the Secretary of State agree with Rhodri Morgan, the leader of the Labour party in Wales, that now is the wrong time to be cutting public expenditure? Will he stand up to the Treasury, demand that the £1 billion cut be frozen or reversed and that Scotland have the opportunity—
I was in Dundee recently and met business representatives and trade unions. They welcomed the proposals being made by the UK Government. The hon. Gentleman invites me to agree with the comments of a fellow politician; I invite him to agree with the comments of Mr. Swinney, who is from his party. He said:
“we welcome a number of elements of the direction that the UK Government has taken to get the economy moving.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 26 November 2008; c. 12722-23.]
The Scottish Government now have more than double the budget that Donald Dewar had about a decade ago. They should put it to good use and invest in Scotland to get us through this economic storm. I am determined to do what I can and will work with anyone in the interests of Scotland to ensure that that happens.
How can a nationalist-Tory alliance complain about a lack of money in Scotland if they can find £12.5 million to buy a single painting for Edinburgh at a time when galleries in Glasgow have rain coming through the roof and when spending on arts and culture in Glasgow is being cut? Does that not show gross incompetence?
My criticism of the SNP Government is not that they have invested in a single painting, but that they are not investing in thousands of Scots or in Scottish apprenticeships so that young Scots, in particular, have the chance to get the skills and confidence to compete in the labour market. We are joined in that criticism by the Scottish trade unions.
Order. May I remind the House that the criticism of the Scottish Government refers to a devolved Parliament? The Scottish Parliament is a creation of this House—we devolved the power—and prolonged criticism of the Scottish Parliament will give the impression that that is all we have to talk about.
Does the Secretary of State—[Interruption.]
I join you in that expectation, Mr. Speaker, but fear that we may be disappointed.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, for those of us who believe in the continuation of the United Kingdom, reform of the Barnett formula is necessary as part of a process that gives the Scottish Parliament more control over how it raises its budget, as well as how it spends it? In that regard, does he agree that the work of the Calman commission is crucial? It has been reported this morning that the Scottish Government are to start engaging with Calman. If so, does he agree that that will be welcome news indeed?
The Calman commission looking at the future of devolution in Scotland is undoubtedly an important piece of work. Ken Calman also initiated the work of the Muscatelli report on the future funding of devolution in Scotland. I shall not pre-empt the outcome of the Calman report today, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an essential and important piece of work and we look forward to co-operating on it very closely.
My right hon. Friend discussed a number of issues, including seeking reassurance that the new industry guidance on mortgage arrears and possessions applied throughout the UK.
I thank the Minister for her reply. The credit crunch continues to affect the lives of many people, in Scotland and all over the world. My constituents welcome the decisions that the British Government have taken to help home owners in Scotland, but unfortunately the Scottish Administration have not given the same guarantees—[Interruption.] I understand, but the problem affects thousands of my constituents in Glasgow. Will the Minister reassure me that she will do everything in her power to ensure that as few people as possible face the nightmare of home repossession?
My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. The UK Government are deeply concerned that as few people as possible should face the threat of repossession, and that is exactly why we have strengthened the level of income support for mortgage interest payments. That support is now available after 13 weeks rather than 39, and will cover mortgages of up to £200,000. In addition, we are working very closely with all major lenders on the new home owners mortgage support scheme, which will apply to people who may face redundancy or a drastic loss of income on a temporary basis and allow them to defer their mortgage payments for up to two years.
As my hon. Friend knows, it is also important that the court protocols are in place to make sure that people unfortunate enough to face repossession get protection and good advice when they enter the court process. I am pleased to note that, following representations in the later part of last year, the Scottish Government have agreed to set up a repossessions advice group to see how the law can be strengthened. I very much hope that it can follow the example introduced last year in England.
The Council of Mortgage Lenders was one of the participants in November’s housing summit in Inverness that was organised by the Highland council. One of the summit’s major conclusions was that much more needed to be done, especially at the Scottish Government level, to free up funding for housing associations. The lack of funding is restricting and slowing down housing associations’ ability to build more affordable housing, whereas what should be happening is that that activity should be accelerating. Did the Council of Mortgage Lenders mention that to the Minister, and what action is being taken to apply pressure on the Scottish Government to release the funds needed to get house building going in the highlands?
It is something that we have discussed and will continue to discuss. It is clearly important to stimulate the housing market, especially social housing, throughout the UK, and that is why we have introduced packages to that effect in England and Wales already. It is important to increase the amount of social housing available in Scotland to meet the very high demand that exists already and to stimulate the housing market in general.
My hon. Friend has mentioned that a working party has been established to look at repossession protocols in Scotland, but that has happened four months after the UK Government took action. The process is much too slow, and home owners in Scotland do not have the same protection in the courts as their counterparts in England and Wales. Will my hon. Friend call in Nicola Sturgeon, the relevant Scottish Minister, and make sure that she addresses the issue as urgently as the UK Government are doing, so that the UK and Scottish Governments can work together in a joined-up manner?
My hon. Friend has a long history of providing support and advice for people with personal debt problems, but the momentum in Scotland for repossessions has been growing. For example, Mike Dailly of the Govan law centre has drawn to our attention the fact that the number of repossession proceedings in Scotland has increased rapidly. It is important appropriate protocols to put in place at the earliest opportunity and without delay, and extend the network of sheriff court advice centres. At present, there are advice centres in only seven of Scotland’s 49 sheriff courts, but it is important for people to be able to get advice as soon as they face the threat of repossession.
I have no plans to have such discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence.
Is that not a rather irresponsible position to take, bearing in mind the fact that it is clearly within the rights of the Scottish nation to decide to leave the United Kingdom, and bearing in mind the significant role that the Scottish nation has played over the years in the defence of the British isles? Surely it would be responsible of the Government to have such contingency plans in place.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the defence footprint is significant in Scotland, where 17,000 service personnel and civilians are employed by the Ministry of Defence. The defence industry in Scotland generates about £2.3 billion. All I would say is that there has never been majority support for independence for Scotland. The fact is that the longer the Scottish National party Government are in power in Scotland, the greater the deficit in support for independence becomes. Support for independence in Scotland is, in percentage terms, in the mid-20s. There is not a mandate for independence, and it would not be appropriate to have such conversations.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. On the defence industrial strategy, will he take every opportunity to remind his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence of the huge Scottish and British asset right at the sharp end—the forefront—of manufacturing, namely Selex, owned by Finmeccanica? Aerospace and avionics are engineering sectors in which Britain still leads. Will he take every opportunity to remind his colleagues of the importance of that facility to our defence, our industry and all military procurement, including Eurofighter?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Scotland, about 16,000 people are directly employed in the defence and aerospace industries, including in the areas to which he alluded. It is an enormous, important part of the Scottish economy, and it is a part of the Scottish economy that can continue to grow in the current economic downturn. It can fuel Scotland’s continued success in future years.
But in the past 12 years there has been a cut in service personnel, bases have been closed, regiments have been axed, and less than our share, in terms of population and tax contribution, is spent on procurement in Scotland. Those are the facts. Why should we put up with that? There is also the fact that Scottish service personnel were committed to illegal wars opposed by the people, and the fact that Trident was based in Scotland—a decision that was also opposed by the people.
I recently had the great honour of meeting the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards in Germany, and the whole House—certainly those on the Labour Benches, and almost everyone in the Opposition parties— would talk with great pride of the work that they did, in a remarkable, brave way, to defend democracy in Iraq. The fact is that if the hon. Gentleman had his way, there would be no Royal Navy, no Royal Navy aircraft carriers, and no Royal Navy jobs on the Clyde, in Rosyth or anywhere else. He and his policies are putting in jeopardy thousands of Scottish jobs in the manufacturing base, so it is no wonder that support for independence for Scotland continues to fall.
I speak as someone who gained from an apprenticeship in a shipyard in the west of Scotland. On shipbuilding, orders are being placed on the Clyde as a consequence of our having a United Kingdom, and that is resulting in more apprenticeships on the Clyde. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a good thing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. There have been recent announcements about recruiting more people to shipbuilding apprenticeships on the Clyde. If it were not for Royal Navy orders for the Clyde area and other parts of Scotland, there would be no ships on which apprentices could learn their skills. I could not put the matter any better than BAE Systems did when it gave evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee: it said that without Royal Navy orders,
“There would not be a ship building business.”
If the Scottish National party had its way, there would be no Royal Navy orders because there would be no Royal Navy.
The Secretary of State clearly knows the contribution that RAF Leuchars in my constituency has made to British defence for a very long time. He has told the House of the total contribution of defence expenditure to the Scottish economy. Will he consider a study of the contribution that individual defence installations make to their local economy, to include RAF Leuchars and also, perhaps, Faslane?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important point about the specific contributions made by RAF Leuchars and Faslane. I am aware that, for example, in Argyll and Clyde about 6,500 defence jobs are reliant on MOD work. On Leuchars, I am happy to discuss with him what specifically we could do to raise the profile of the work of the personnel there and across Scotland, but it is a matter that I would have to discuss in more detail with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.
I thank my right hon. Friend and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence for all the thousands of jobs for people in my constituency on the Clyde working on the Type 45 and, hopefully, soon on the carrier. Will he not listen to Opposition parties, one of which would have closed the Clyde down before the last election, and the other which supported it in order to try to get rid of a Labour Government? They offer nothing to help the workers in Scotland or the workers in the defence industry.
Again, my hon. Friend is typically correct when he talks about the importance of the shipbuilding on the Clyde that he and other Glasgow Members have championed for some years. Our armed forces are part of our shared heritage—that of Scotland and the United Kingdom—and the Government will do all we can to protect and preserve that for many years to come.
It is perhaps tempting to remind the House of the Scottish National party’s military adviser, Colonel Crawford, who once proposed chemical weapons as a cheaper alternative to the nuclear deterrent in Scotland. May I urge the Minister not to waste any time or money on making unlikely and unnecessary plans for Scottish independence, which would see the demise of the defence industry in Scotland, and may I remind the House that our Army is better because of Scottish soldiers, and Scotland is safer because of the British Union?
The hon. Gentleman is correct: Scotland is stronger because of the Union and the United Kingdom. There is remarkable pride and passion across Scotland about the enormous contribution made by Scots as part of the United Kingdom armed forces. We will continue to oppose plans by the SNP, of course. Much more important is the fact that the vast majority of Scots refute the suggestions from the SNP that we should break up Britain and destroy the UK armed forces.
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about how to support those people who lose their jobs in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, as part of the pre-Budget report, an extra £2 billion is going into the pockets and purses of Scots to support them through these difficult times. Scotland being in the United Kingdom makes Scotland more prosperous in good times and help us to insure against the most difficult times when we face crisis, such as the world faces now. Most Scots appreciate that we are stronger together and would be much weaker apart.
From his discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend will be aware of the support that is now embedded to help the long-term unemployed into work. When he meets the First Minister, will he raise my concern that nothing has been done in Scotland to match the skills and training element of that support, which is available elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend is right. We need to make sure that today’s newly unemployed do not become the long-term unemployed of tomorrow. We will discuss those issues with the First Minister and others when we meet in Glasgow next month. We are putting in place welfare reform proposals and increasing the investment in Jobcentre Plus because we will not walk away from our responsibility to the newly unemployed in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
The Secretary of State is right to say that preparations need to be made to deal with the inevitable rise in unemployment as a result of the economic crisis. Will he also recognise that the best thing to do is to minimise the number of job losses? To that end, what are the Government doing to try to ensure maximum investment in the North sea during the current credit crisis? The traditional lending markets are drying up.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of North sea oil and gas. I met representatives of the industry last week and, along with the Secretaries of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and for Energy and Climate Change, I will do so again in the next couple of weeks. It is crucial that we continue investment in the North sea, to access oilfields and gasfields that we have not got to in past decades; I am thinking in particular of the enormous untapped resource west of Shetland. We need to do all that we can to support the industry to exploit that.
As people begin to get worried about the rising claimant count, does my right hon. Friend accept that there are concerns in the oil and gas industry and energy companies such as INEOS, which he visited recently with me? However, those concerns are covered in Scotland by the national agreement for the engineering construction industry, or NAECI—made by the companies and Unite—under which the companies draw from within a 40-mile zone in Scotland. The concern in Scotland is that if workers were denied the right to work outwith Scotland, many with high skills would be unemployed. We need more high skills in Scotland to allow people to get the jobs available in the oil and energy industry.
My hon. Friend is right. I recently met representatives of INEOS and at the weekend I met shop stewards from Longannet and Grangemouth—both places out on strike. It was a helpful and constructive conversation. It is clear that the workers are concerned because of the economic climate and are worried that European law is preventing them from having a level playing field when it comes to employment opportunities. It is essential that those workers are able to compete on a level playing field, that European law is applied equally and that British workers are able to compete for jobs in Britain. We make it absolutely clear, along with the companies, that that is exactly the situation that should and must apply in the UK—and, in most cases, we believe that it does.
Will the Secretary of State admit that on the basis of the warnings from the International Monetary Fund and the Fraser of Allander Institute, his Labour Government have led Scotland not just into recession but to the brink of becoming the worst hit part of the worst hit country in the developed world? Does he agree that at such a time, Scotland does not need a do nothing Secretary of State? It needs him to bring the UK and Scottish Governments together to combat this recession. Can he tell Parliament how many times the Prime Minister has met the First Minister to discuss the recession? How many times has he himself done so?
I do not keep the Prime Minister’s diary, but I have announced that the First Minister, the CBI, the STUC and I will be coming together. We will look at what happened during previous recessions in the United Kingdom. We will look at the position of the Government in power at those times, who said that unemployment was a price worth paying. We will do the opposite. Unemployment is never a price worth paying, and we will do everything that we can to prevent the long-term generational unemployment that typified the Tory approach to previous recessions. [Interruption.]
I think we can take it that the answer to the question about the number of meetings between the Prime Minister and the First Minister to discuss the recession is none. The people of Scotland will find it deeply disappointing that there has been so little, and such acrimonious, dialogue between their Prime Minister, Secretary of State and First Minister in the face of such a serious crisis. I say to the Secretary of State that under a Conservative Government things would be very different, because Scotland’s interests would be put first. Perhaps the Secretary of State can tell us: is it that the Prime Minister has been so busy saving the world that he has not had time to save Scotland, or that he simply puts partisan political interests ahead of Scottish business interests?
There we have it. The Conservatives’ approach would be entirely different. We know that from their history: long-term generational unemployment; incapacity benefit numbers trebling; a poll tax in Scotland first; no investment whatever in public services; and child poverty higher in the United Kingdom than in any industrialised nation in the world. Yes, there are enormous differences between the two parties. We believe in investing in these economically difficult times; the Conservatives are out of touch with the mainstream across the world, including new President Obama. On that basis, they are economically illiterate and politically isolated.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our profound condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Danny Nield of 1st Battalion The Rifles, who was killed in Afghanistan last Friday. We owe him, and all who have lost their lives, our gratitude for their service. Our armed forces show us week in and week out their courage and commitment, and we will never forget those who have shown such dedication.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further meetings later today.
The whole House will wish to send our deepest sympathy to the family of Corporal Nield.
We are experiencing the worst winter weather for 20 years, but new evidence shows that fuel companies are not cutting fuel bills as their costs reduce. Meanwhile, energy giant BP has just posted £14 billion in profits. What urgent further steps can my right hon. Friend take to reassure pensioners and families who are worried about their fuel bills this winter?
First, I pay tribute to the emergency services for the way that they have dealt with all the troubles and difficulties that have arisen from the cold weather. We are determined to provide real help to people who are facing difficulties with their fuel bills, including pensioners who are worried about their ability to turn on their heating at a time when the weather is really cold. So in addition to the money that we have provided through the winter allowance, with 12 million pensioners who benefit by £250 or £400 this year, and at the same time as the £60 that we are giving to every pensioner now—it has been paid out in the past few days—I can also confirm that this Monday half a million vulnerable families became eligible for payments of £25 on the basis of future weather forecasts. Let me also say that 5 million people will get cold weather payments this week, and we will continue to make payments whenever the weather is so poor.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Corporal Danny Nield, killed in Afghanistan on Friday. We should offer our deepest sympathy to his family and his friends at this time.
Does the Prime Minister share my concern at the decision by the US House of Representatives to pass “Buy America” legislation, and does he agree that a retreat into protectionism is the last thing that the world needs? Yesterday, the Prime Minister’s spokesman refused to confirm that he would specifically condemn these moves. Will the Prime Minister make clear his position today?
I have made it clear throughout the past few months that the biggest danger that the world faces is a retreat into protectionism. I have also made it clear that, as a result of the withdrawal of foreign banking capacity in large numbers of countries, we face a downward spiral whereby these countries cannot borrow from anybody because foreign banks have left. That is all the more reason why, first, we should sign the Doha agreement—that will feature on the G20 agenda—and secondly, we should ensure that every country is analysed by the World Trade Organisation on what it is doing to prevent protectionism. It is also absolutely clear that we should agree, as a world, on a monetary and fiscal stimulus that will take the world out of depression.
The two countries that most need to give ground to achieve action on the Doha round—India and the US—will both be present at the G20. As the Prime Minister said, the aims of the G20 refer to advancing the Doha trade round. Should we not be clear that anything less than removing the barriers to agreement would represent a failure?
I tried very hard before Christmas to talk to both President Bush and the Indian Prime Minister so that we could make progress on this. There are actually only two issues that are left to be decided. The first is a safeguard clause for when there is a surge in imports in any poor country, and the second concerns negotiations on sectorals—different sectors of industry—and how those could be concluded. By the time President Bush had left office, he had made it clear that he would be able to accept the wording on the sectoral agreements, and the Indian Prime Minister has said to me that he wants to make progress on the safeguard clause.
It is now up to President Obama and the Indian Prime Minister to say that they can accept the terms of this agreement. If that were so, we would have a conclusion of the first round of the Doha negotiations. That is in the interests not just of our country, but of the poorest countries in the world, which are now facing poverty as a result of the industrial downturn. Those two issues can be resolved, and I will work very hard to resolve them in the next few weeks.
The point is that if we do not get a conclusion to the Doha round, the existing policy space allows countries to double the level of tariffs. Everyone can hear that the Prime Minister says that it is important to avoid protectionism, but is he not himself guilty of encouraging protectionist sentiment? Does he agree that use of the slogan “British jobs for British workers”—[Interruption.] Does he agree that using that slogan showed a lack of judgment, and does he now regret it?
First, on the trade negotiations, let us be clear that we have done everything in our power. The Brazilians have come on board; the Argentinians have come on board; the South Africans have come on board; the rest of Europe has come on board. It is important that we make all the efforts we can with other countries to get this trade agreement. Pascal Lamy, the head of the WTO, has just published a report on the protectionist tariffs that are being imposed by different countries during the present downturn. At the moment, those tariffs are limited and it is important that we continue to see that they are limited.
On the second question, can anybody here say that they do not want British workers to get jobs in our country? Can anyone here say—[Interruption.] Can anyone here say that they do not want us to help British workers get the skills necessary to get jobs? Let me also say that in an open environment and a global economy where there is competition for jobs, it is crucial that we do everything in our power to help people get the jobs that are available. That is why we are investing in apprenticeships; that is why we are investing in helping the unemployed get back to work; that is why we have a new deal; that is why we are increasing public investment. The pity is that the Opposition do not support us, because they want to do nothing.
He was pandering to people’s fears and he knows it. This is what the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, his former Europe Minister, had to say. He said that the slogan
“lacks credible arguments”
“appears to amount to little more than employment apartheid” .
He was asked to repeat the slogan, and because he has got some judgment he refused. Let me ask the Prime Minister again: is not the use of this slogan an error of judgment and a huge mistake, and should he not apologise instead of twisting?
I have already shown that we are far from protectionist as a Government. We are trying to get a world trade agreement. I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman—he does not want to listen—that in an open, global environment where there is competition for jobs, it is our duty to help British workers get the skills necessary for jobs. As far as opportunism is concerned, I have to tell him that there is nothing more opportunistic than his saying in the autumn that he wanted to give all-party support to this Government’s efforts to take us out of a global financial crisis and then, the next moment, withdrawing all that support. That is opportunism.
Does the Prime Minister not understand that he is taking people for fools again? At international summits, he lectures the world on the evils of protectionism, but back at home, with his slogan “British jobs for British workers”, he is pandering to protectionist fears. Does he not understand that he has been found out?
Let me just bring the right hon. Gentleman up to date with what is happening in the industrial dispute, so that he realises what is going on. An ACAS proposal has been put to the work force, and I hope that they will now accept it despite their initial reservations. I can also tell him that the construction and engineering association has issued new guiding principles for companies to consider when using non-UK contractors and labour on engineering construction sites. I hope that the whole House will welcome the fact that it now states in the new advice:
“Always consider whether there are competent workers available locally. If there are, it is good practice for the non-UK contractor to explore and consider the local skills availability and to consider any applications that may be forthcoming.”
That is the common-sense way of dealing in practical terms with the difficulties that we face.
Does the Prime Minister not realise that one of his problems is that he refuses to admit mistakes, even when those mistakes stare him and the whole country in the face? He says “British jobs for British workers” when he knows that it is not deliverable. He says that he ended boom and bust when we are in the deepest recession for a generation. He says that our economy is well prepared when the IMF says that we are going to have the deepest recession of all. I have to tell him that he should just look behind him—they are so ashamed of what he has said about British jobs for British workers. [Interruption.] Let me ask him one final time—[Interruption.]
I do not know why the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is shouting—it was he who specifically criticised the Prime Minister for using that phrase. He said that
“every politician from a Prime Minister down to the most junior”
“in the House of Commons has to choose their words carefully.”
[Interruption.] I think that the right hon. Gentleman will have to learn to shout carefully, too.
Let me ask the Prime Minister one final time: was not using that phrase an error of judgment and a big mistake, and will he make a promise not to do it again?
The biggest error of judgment would be to do nothing during this period of the world downturn. The biggest error of judgment would be to fail to invest in the economy and help people get the skills that are necessary for jobs. We are creating 35,000 apprenticeships, we are helping 500,000 people into work and we are investing in the construction industry to create more jobs. The right hon. Gentleman goes around the world talking the pound down; he goes around the world saying that we are going to have to go to the IMF; he goes to Switzerland and says that the British economy is weak. He has decided that it is in the interests of the Conservative party to talk Britain down, and he should be ashamed of himself.
I am aware of several potential bidders to save Wedgwood and the hundreds of jobs affected in north Staffordshire. Although the administrators seem to be doing a very good job of keeping things running, I am worried that they are rapidly running out of time. Will my right hon. Friend look at what Government support can be given to assist the administrators to ensure that Wedgwood can keep running while they consider all potential bidders to save it?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a huge interest in this matter. We did try to help Wedgwood over the Christmas weeks, to see whether the company could be saved before it went into administration. I am very happy to talk to him about how we can speed up the process to help British workers there, and I am very happy to meet him to do so.
I add my expressions of sympathy and condolence to the family and friends of Corporal Danny Nield, who tragically lost his life serving this country and the people of Afghanistan in Helmand province.
Week after week, I have been asking the Prime Minister why he is not getting tough on tax avoidance. Every time, he tells me that he is doing all that he can. This week, newspapers have confirmed that big companies are using loopholes to get out of paying £14 billion in corporation tax alone. Instead of going on about British jobs for British workers, is it not time that he went on about British taxes for British companies?
This needs not only the efforts that we are making to clamp down on tax avoidance and tax evasion, but an international agreement. The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that there is a case in America at the moment in relation to Swiss tax avoidance. Once it is resolved, I believe that it is possible to get an international agreement for the exchange of information about tax cases. That would be the way to move forward our proposals for the exchange of information on tax and clamping down on tax evaders.
The Prime Minister is living in denial. He created a system that lets big companies run rings round the Treasury, lets peers in the other place not pay their full taxes in this country and allows City bosses to pay less in tax on their capital gains than their cleaners pay on their wages. He is losing this country billions of pounds, which could be used to give big permanent tax cuts to ordinary families. Why should anyone trust him when he makes one rule for the fat cats and another for everyone else?
I remember that the chief donor to the Liberal party got into real trouble because he was a tax evader, and the Liberals never returned the money. Perhaps it is the leader of the Liberal party who is in denial at the moment.
We do everything we can, and will continue to do so, Budget after Budget, to remove the possibility of tax avoidance and tax evasion. In the end, it will need what the right hon. Gentleman should support—an international agreement. In the light of the Swiss case in the United States of America, I hope that we can make big progress on that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support it.
Over the weekend, 400 job losses were announced in my constituency, with the closure of the Stampworks in Ayr, the last truck axle manufacturer in the UK, and 145 job losses in Girvan—work is being transferred to Norway from one of the few sizeable employers in the Girvan area. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet me to discuss what can be done to help?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a huge interest in increasing employment and ensuring that employment opportunities are available in her constituency. We have talked on many occasions about how we can get more jobs into that area. I would be happy to meet her to discuss these particular redundancies and see what we can do. If the jobs cannot be saved, it is important that we help people get back into work quickly—200,000 people a month can still get new jobs and there are half a million vacancies in the economy. While I understand the feelings and sentiments of people who are in danger of losing their jobs, and I feel for them at this difficult time, we will do everything we can to help them back into work.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the announcement by Pontin’s yesterday of a £50 million expansion plan. I know that Southport will benefit from that with extra jobs. I can also tell him that, in addition, Southport will receive a £4 million grant to help create a new cultural centre in the area under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s sea change programme, which aims to regenerate coastal areas. We will continue to do our best to create jobs and to boost the British tourism industry, which, I believe, will do well this summer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has pushed this matter for many years, since he was a local authority leader. The decline in mortgage lending is mainly the result of the loss of capacity in the mortgage market. So even if existing banks lend more to home owners, the loss of foreign and other capacity in the market makes it more difficult for people to get mortgages at a price that they can afford. That is why we are saying that local authorities that already have the power to issue mortgages should be encouraged to do so, and why the Minister for Housing has announced a lowering of the standard interest rate. We are now considering what more we can do to help individuals and households meet their housing needs. I hope that the answer I give my hon. Friend on his 68th birthday is acceptable.
I think that the hon. Lady would also accept that the draft plan designates Guildford as a regional hub, as a focus for transport growth and investment. These changes were made following the recommendations of the independent panel of inspectors who examined the draft plan. The final plan will be published in the spring. The Government are still looking at the responses to the consultation. The Government remain committed to the green belt. This is a selective review of part of the metropolitan green belt and we will listen to all responses that have been made.
We all agree about the need to introduce reform in financial regulation and we will be announcing further plans to do so very soon. However, I think that my hon. Friend agrees with me that this has to happen at the international level, as well as the national level, and I hope that the Conservatives will recognise that. As for the posted workers directive, an expert review has been set up in the European Union to look at the impact of the Laval, Viking and other judgments, and a group of employers and the work forces are also meeting to review that at the same time. When they reach their conclusions, we will look at what they have to say.
The answer to the problems that we have today is not to do nothing, as the Conservative party says it is. I have the manifesto of the Conservative group in the European Parliament, and what does it start by saying?
“The financial and economic crisis should not be taken as an excuse to do nothing”.
Even the European Conservatives agree on the need for action.
This extension of free and concessionary travel to elderly people is one of the emancipating forces of our time, because it allows people to travel round the country and not just in their local areas. We have invested £212 million in this new, extra funding for travel. If there is any problem that my hon. Friend brings to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport, he will of course look at it, but the truth is that this scheme is a big investment in older people, to help them become more mobile in the later years of their lives.
Just over a week ago I tabled a question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, asking about the scrutiny and conditions imposed by the Financial Services Authority when the Chelsea building society sought to establish an offshore bank in Guernsey. I received a reply from the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), which said:
“The matters raised in this question are the responsibility of the Financial Services Authority, whose day to day operations are independent from Government control and influence.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 682W.]
In the nearly 26 years I have been in this House, I have never known a senior Minister refuse to answer a question on a subject where he had responsibility. I am sure that the Prime Minister, when he created the Financial Services Authority, did not intend it to be exempt from scrutiny by this House, and I would be grateful if he would confirm that.
We set up a unified Financial Services Authority and this House of Commons gave it the legislative power to take the action necessary to deal with the regulation of individual institutions. Of course we are now looking at the powers and the responsibility of the Financial Services Authority for the future. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise this individual matter with me, I am very happy to look at it, and I know that the chairman of the Financial Services Authority will be writing to him soon.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Israeli Government have a responsibility to help humanitarian help to get into the Gaza area. I have just written to Prime Minister Olmert asking him to take urgent action to ensure that the crossings are open so that the lorryloads of help can be brought into the area. I am urging him to open the crossings and also to provide proper humanitarian access. I think that people know that the UK has trebled its humanitarian efforts. I have been talking to leaders in the Arab countries about what more they can do, and there is a conference in Egypt over the next few days to pool the resources to ensure that humanitarian help is available not only to provide immediate aid but to rebuild the Gaza area. I believe that all Members of the House will want to see aid getting into Gaza as quickly as possible.
The Competition Commission reported last year that the large supermarkets
“transfer excessive risk and”—
“costs to suppliers”,
which is damaging consumer interests and detrimental to farmers and growers, both here and in the developing world. Does the Prime Minister agree that the commission’s proposed remedies to tackle this problem should now be implemented without further delay?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this problem—first, because of the failure to introduce early payment to many of the suppliers. We are asking the supermarkets to do that. Secondly, in relation to developing countries, we have been in talks with supermarkets such as Asda about how they can source their produce from those countries at a fair price. We will continue to push that as quickly as possible.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the need for more investment in skills and training in Wales and the rest of the country. Through the Assembly, Wales has developed a new programme called ProAct to help people to stay in jobs rather than be made unemployed, and a great deal of work is being done by us to look at that scheme and at how it could apply to other parts of the United Kingdom. We are also putting aside £250 million for training opportunities during the course of this downturn, and we are determined to do everything we can to help people to get into the jobs that are available.
A quarter of all council tax is now used to pay for local authority pensions. A former chief executive of Northamptonshire county council left his job 18 months ago at the age of 52 with a lump sum payment of £291,000 and a £97,000 a year index-linked pension, which is costing the county £600,000. Nice work if you can get it! When will the Government have the courage to tackle this national pension outrage?
The first thing I should say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is a Conservative council that he is referring to, and the second thing is that most local authority workers do not have that level of pension entitlement. I hope that the Conservative party is not going to make the mistake of identifying one case as representative of what is happening to ordinary local authority workers who, as we found with the emergency services, do a good job when called upon to do so.
I am surprised at the Conservative attitude to public transport, particularly the need to improve bus services around the country. I believe that the new transport Act has been widely welcomed because it recognises that country buses in particular are a lifeline to many communities. The Act is about giving options to local authorities, not being prescriptive about what they should do. It is for local authorities to take advantage of the new powers. My hon. Friend is telling me that Labour local authorities will take that advantage; I hope that Conservative authorities will serve their public as well.
As the Prime Minister is understandably anxious to exercise national leadership in these difficult times and as he must understand that national leadership depends on a degree of consensus, will he invite my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats to No. 10 Downing street to see whether common ground can be found among them?
I am afraid it has been very difficult to find common ground, even across the Dispatch Box today, on how we deal with the problems of the economy. The hon. Gentleman may remember that in October there was talk of all parties working together to solve the economic problem. The Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Ministers were given access to the Bank of England and to the Treasury to find out what was happening; unfortunately, a week later, they withdrew their support. I am very happy to work with all parties to deal with the problems we face. I am very happy to work with all parties so that we can have the fiscal stimulus that is necessary. I am happy to work with all parties to ensure that we invest properly in the future. I hope that the Conservative party will change its position on those issues, so that that co-operation could happen.
Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Ed Balls, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Jack Straw, Secretary Alan Johnson, Secretary Hazel Blears, Secretary James Purnell, Secretary John Denham, Secretary Paul Murphy, Jim Knight, Mr. Siôn Simon and Sarah McCarthy-Fry presented a Bill to make provision about apprenticeships, education, training and children’s services; to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996; to establish the Young People’s Learning Agency for England, the office of Chief Executive of Skills Funding, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation and the School Support Staff Negotiating Body and to make provision about those bodies and that office; to make provision about the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority; to make provision about schools and institutions within the further education sector; to make provision about student loans; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 55) with explanatory notes (Bill 55-EN).
Exercise of Reasonable Discretion
Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that public authorities and public servants shall not be subject to any criminal or civil penalty as a result of the exercise of reasonable discretion in the performance of their functions; and for connected purposes.
This Bill is about advancing common sense and fighting bureaucracy. I owe its rather strange long title to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), my friend and supporter of the Bill. There is, of course, a mild irony in the title because it is itself an exercise in bureaucratic speak. It resembles my favourite rule in my college library—rule 6, which is that “No one is to mark or deface any book or other property of the library”, alongside which someone had added, very neatly in ink, “Hear, hear”!
The formal intent of the Bill is to indemnify public servants, central government, local government and other public agencies from legal action if they had taken decisions motivated by common sense, whatever the rules strictly said. I shall come on in a few moments to the underlying thought, but at the outset let me first get three potential criticisms out of the way. The first is that what I propose is so self-evidently sensible that it is already part of our law and practice. It is true that there are common-law precedents—as well as modern practices such as that of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which explicitly uses extra-statutory concessions that go beyond tax law—but however sensible those measures are, they do not establish a general principle or cover every case. A second objection might be that the Bill in some way represents a charter for vexatious litigation and legal challenge, but I would maintain that the legal concept of reasonability is by now well established. My intention is to fight off unnecessary legislation, far from encouraging it.
I imagine that it might suit some opponents of the Bill to paint me as some kind of anarchist, denying the proper function of rules in a modern society. It is, perhaps, rather unlikely that a former inhabitant of the Whips Office would undergo such a deathbed conversion, and I assure the House that I have not—but I think that even the best and most well-honed rule book must be interpreted in the light of the facts, if only because rules often clash with one another.
That brings me to the substance of my case. There probably never was a golden age of balance between sensible rules on the one hand and the wise use of discretion on the other. I generally welcome the growth of judicial review since the second world war as a necessary curb on an over-mighty Executive and arbitrary decision-making processes. Nor is it wrong to ask for greater openness and transparency in our public affairs. However, all that can be taken to extremes, can exceed the bounds of common sense, and can actually harm us.
The House will have noted that there has been a lot of talk about this issue recently, since the idea occurred to me but not, I think, because of that. Indeed, we have legislated, in the Compensation Act 2006, to try to curb the paralysis that threatened, for example, outdoor activities for young people when adult volunteers no longer felt able to take part in them because of implications of liability for reasons of health and safety and so forth. I believe, however, that the “mind your back” culture has seeped much more deeply into our national life, affecting and poisoning the whole of it.
I nearly always respect the writings of Libby Purves. She is eminently sensible. Some months ago, she wrote in an article in The Times:
“We read too many stories about this craven, inhuman, poltroonish cowering behind rules and routines, and about individuals who get into trouble for momentarily breaching them in the name of humanity or sense.”
Retreat into the rules is an excellent bureaucratic bomb shelter. Its private sector equivalent would perhaps be the saying—now, I think, somewhat discredited, and certainly out of fashion—that no executive was ever fired for choosing to buy IBM computers. Incidentally, my Bill could be usefully adapted to include private sector employees engaged in the discharge of their duties, although it is not currently so drafted.
Alongside every petty bureaucratic tyrant who relishes frustrating someone by finding a rule with which to do them down is an even worse and wider set of problems. They include the deterrent effect on decent public employees of the fear that any risk they might take could backfire if it were unsuccessful—if something went wrong—and, at the level of, say, a local planning authority, the fear that any decision, however sensible, might set a precedent for some other proposal.
My final and, I think, my greatest bugbear is the collapse and deformation of public service into a hollow shell of process, and training courses undertaken not so much to improve competition or competence as to cover any threat of litigation. While it is always dangerous to comment on particular cases, I wonder, in the context of this week’s events, how many decisions on school closures were made with an eye to the courts rather than in the interests of children and their families. Frankly, fear of liability seems to have more effectively stopped London this week than ever fear of Hitler did.
My Bill is a simple one. It seeks to rebalance matters by providing a public authority or public official with the defence of exercising “reasonable discretion”. It would support those who back their own professional judgment—and also, perhaps, all those who work hard on our behalf without a professional qualification, but who seek to do the best for their customers and to act both sensibly and responsibly.
By establishing the principle of
“the exercise of reasonable discretion”,
the Bill would strike a blow for a concept whose time has clearly now come. We need in our public life again to achieve what I would describe as a victory for common sense, and I believe this Bill would advance that.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr. Tim Boswell, James Brokenshire, Mr. Christopher Chope, Mr. David Kidney, Bob Russell and Sir George Young present the Bill.
Mr. Tim Boswell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 March and to be printed (Bill 56).
Police Grant Report
I beg to move,
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) for 2009–10 (House of Commons Paper No. 148), which was laid before this House on 21 January, be approved.
In December 2007, the Government announced provisional funding totals for the three-year period 2008-09 to 2010-11. Three-year funding settlements have been widely welcomed by police authorities. They enable authorities to develop medium-term financial strategies and control their spending better. Last year’s multi-year pay deal for the police will also improve their medium-term planning. I confirmed the figures for 2009-10 on 26 November, with indicative figures for 2010-11.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. May I place on record my thanks to him—or his predecessor as police Minister—and the Minister for Local Government for meeting those police authorities that faced the prospect of a cap, and for hearing the arguments we put forward before making their final decision? That process of negotiation was extremely important in dealing with this issue.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, for his remarks. He will know that my predecessors and I have tried hard to negotiate our way through these various matters.
My written ministerial statement of 21 January confirmed that we are implementing the funding settlement for 2009-10 broadly unchanged from that previously announced. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, in the context of an increasingly tight financial settlement, the funding settlement for 2009-10 remains a good and affordable one for the police service, building on considerable investment by Government and police authorities over a sustained period.
I will give way after I have made a little more progress.
Government grant for police services will have increased by more than £3.7 billion between 1997-98 and 2010-11, an increase of 60 per cent. That is a substantial additional resource. Together with the significant extra investment that police authorities have raised locally, grant increases have allowed the police to expand to meet the increasingly complex issues they are called to face. There are more police on the streets than ever before and there has been a 28.5 per cent increase in the police work force since 1997. The service now employs more than 235,000 people, which is an increase of 52,200 extra police officers and police community support officers. The number of staff officers is 140,539, which is an increase of 11.7 per cent. or 14,714 officers on the 1997 figure. Front-line police officers are supported by nearly 16,000 PCSOs and nearly 21,800 additional police staff, who are releasing officers for front-line duties.
We are all grateful to the police and to the Minister for his commitment. London—the Metropolitan police—gets an additional amount because of its national and capital city functions. Can he explain why it will have a below inflation increase and a below national average increase in its grant in the coming year, given the importance of the Met police and the importance of this capital city being seen to be leading the way in dealing with crime?
The Metropolitan Police Service, in common with other police forces across the country, has received a significant increase in its funding over the past few years—indeed, it has received increases in its funding for next year. Negotiations on the funding for some of the counter-terrorism dedicated security posts are continuing and we will make announcements about that in due course. If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the investment not only in the Metropolitan police force, but in police forces across the country, he would see that significant additional investments have been made in each and every one of them.
I regard the Minister as being open to feedback and very proactive in his role. There is concern in the Dyfed-Powys police force about the long-term plans for the rural policing grant; it has been suggested that that could be homogenised into other funding. Although my area is blessed with an excellent police force and a relatively low level of crime, that force seeks reassurance that it will not lose out if the plans for that grant are changed. Will he give some guidance on his plans?
We are trying to be fair to Welsh police forces. The hon. Gentleman will know that Welsh police forces outside the South Wales police force benefit from our giving them an additional approximately £15 million to ensure that they are funded in exactly the same way as police forces in England—I know that is welcomed in Wales. He also talked about the rule 2 grants—the separate pots of money, such as the rural policing grants, that we put together in a single pot—and he will know that we have confirmed that we shall roll those forward for next year and that we have given the indicative levels for years 2010 and 2011. He will know that a review of the police formula is taking place and, doubtless, the comments that he made will be fed into the review to ensure that they are taken account of in any revised police formula for the next comprehensive spending review period.
The Minister responded to the demands of the Metropolitan police force, but he will be aware that it has benefited over the past five years from being able to recruit for free more than 1,000 officers who were trained at the council tax payer’s expense from forces in the counties surrounding London, including Thames Valley. When we will resolve this issue of the £5,000 wage differential between Metropolitan police officers and officers in the south-east in order to stop this unacceptable poaching?
Along with a number of other hon. Members from across the House, my hon. Friend took part in the debate that specifically addressed Thames Valley police and related to how we try to deal with the south-east allowances. He has been one of the doughtiest campaigners in trying to get this issue resolved. As I told that meeting, I intend to do all that I can to encourage a settlement that prevents this sort of problem from occurring. He will know that it is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board to resolve. The issue is not one of resources, but one of agreement at the Police Negotiating Board so that the differential to which he refers can be examined and changed to try to stop some of the problems occurring.The hon. Gentleman will also know that that is a matter for discussion between the new commissioner and chief constables in neighbouring forces, to see whether they can come to an agreement about how to deal with the issue while they wait for the Police Negotiating Board to achieve a settlement.
West Yorkshire has benefited considerably from the additional police funding made available by this Government, but while tremendous strides have been made in improving the police funding formula inherited from the Conservatives, a gap remains between what West Yorkshire gets and what it would receive if it were fully funded under the formula. Can my hon. Friend give me a commitment that he will look seriously at how we can bridge that gap?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about his local force. From a national perspective, we have to try to ensure that the national funding formula is fair to all forces, and we have tried to distribute the pot of money available in a fair and reasonable way. That is why we have included a floor, so that no authority receives less than 2.5 per cent. If the formula were strictly interpreted, some forces would lose out. I know that because my local force in Nottinghamshire loses some money so that we can maintain the floor. However, that is necessary and proportionate from a national perspective.
As I said to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), the review of the funding formula needs to cover such issues. We need to see whether we can come up with a fairer mechanism, notwithstanding the fact that all hon. Members, rightly, fight for the best deal for their local force.
The Minister will be aware, from meetings that he has had, of the genuine concern of the people of Lincolnshire about the perceived historic underfunding of the Lincolnshire police authority, which has been accepted, as evidenced by the one-off payments that the Home Office has made and the fact that the Government have allowed a 26 per cent. increase in the police precept in the area in the last year. Will the Minister ensure that the needs of rural counties such as Lincolnshire form a significant part of the funding review, so that they get their fair share of resources in the next comprehensive spending review?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about Lincolnshire. He will know that I visited the area recently and met the chief constable and others. Those are the issues that we will need to look at in the review of the funding formula, and he is right to point out that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, we need a formula that is fair to both urban and rural areas. We need to find a way of ensuring that the needs of the vast expanses with very few people in them are properly reflected so that they receive the level of police funding that they can reasonably expect. We will look into that, and I am grateful to him for raising the point.
My hon. Friend will know from his direct personal experience that crime is falling in Nottinghamshire and police resources are at a record level. It is an improving police force, but may I reinforce the point—I know that he is well aware of it—that Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and other east midlands authorities are disadvantaged in relative terms by the funding formula? Can we make progress quickly? The Nottinghamshire police are making progress: they would be helped by changes in the funding formula.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for those comments. I know that he and other colleagues in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and across the east midlands have campaigned long and hard for a fairer distribution of resources to forces in the area. It is a fact that the floor means that some forces do not receive the amount that they would if the funding formula were fully implemented. I have to say that of course the opposite is true: some forces would lose significant amounts of money were we to remove the floor. We are searching for a way to ensure that police forces in Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and the rest of the east midlands are funded as fairly as possible. I am not sure whether Ministers are supposed to do such things, but as a fellow Nottingham MP I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Nottinghamshire police—and other police forces—on the work that they are doing in reducing crime.
Dorset police authority is a high-performing and efficient force, but it predicts that it will have to lose 43 police officers this year, even with the floor, which is very important to it. The authority is especially concerned about how bars are dealt with in the formula. Dorset has a high concentration of licensed premises, with up to 1,000 places, in just two major towns, with the rest of the county being relatively rural. The formula does not really provide enough funding to police those hotspots adequately, because it is based on an area average that does not work satisfactorily in Dorset’s case.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. In this debate, I have tried to avoid saying—apart from in my opening remarks—that police numbers have gone up and crime has gone down, because although that is true in Dorset, as there are more officers, community support officers and staff, and crime has fallen, it is also true of every constituency. Notwithstanding that, there are issues with how the funding formula works. I have tried hard, together with the Home Secretary and colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that this financial settlement provides stability in difficult times. The vast majority of responses—we had far fewer this year—asked us to ensure that we implement the funding amounts that we said would be introduced in 2009-10 to provide that stability. After 2010-11, we will enter the new comprehensive spending review period, and that is when we can try to address some of the concerns about the funding formula.
The hon. Lady has raised some of the issues with the formula, and other hon. Members have raised others. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) raised issues that affect Leicestershire and the east midlands. All those matters require discussion and review, and we have to try to find a way forward. People come at the issue from the point of view of their area—rightly, because they represent that area. But as the Minister, I have to see the issue from a national perspective. We are trying to be fair to police forces in every area, and the fairest way to achieve that is to provide the stability that is achieved in this settlement.
The Minister makes a fair point about the need for balance in the national allocation. He knows that part of the allocation is based on the number of people coming into an area, and part of it on the number of residents. Can he assure us that the Department will take into account the underscoring of the population in areas where the Office for National Statistics figures for resident population are significantly behind the real numbers? London is an obvious case. There are far more migrants coming to London than the figures for the resident population suggest.
Population is one of the factors that are taken into account, and the exact measurement of population is an area of controversy, and something that needs to be taken into account. [Interruption.] I am reminded that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman earlier, so he has had two bites at the cherry.
Migrant numbers do have an impact on costs, and that is why the Government have set up a fund, available from April 2009, to help local services with those costs, such as translators. That money will be made available to Government offices, including the Government office for London.
Growing numbers of specialist police staff are taking on roles as scene of crime officers, fingerprint analysts and intelligence officers. Additional police staff are also increasingly taking on the routine elements of case file preparation, prisoner supervision and station inquiries, freeing police officers from administrative work. Although overall numbers are important, it is crucial to make the best use of officer and staff time so that those people are in the right place at the right time to deliver for the public. Getting the best possible work force mix of officers and staff will also help to ensure that the most responsive possible service is provided.
Operational police officers are spending more of their time on front-line duties. Overall crime is falling or stable. The overall level of crime recorded by the police in July to September 2008 fell by 3 per cent. compared with the same quarter in 2007. Within that overall figure, violence against the person fell by 6 per cent. and firearm offences fell by 29 per cent. The British crime survey figures published on 22 January 2009 show that, according to interviews, in the year to September 2008 the overall level of crime is stable compared with that in the previous year. So is the risk of being a victim, which remains at a historically low level.
Levels of violent crime, domestic burglary and vandalism were also stable compared with the previous year, and vehicle-related thefts fell by 10 per cent. In the 12 months to September 2008, there was a statistically significant decrease in the proportion of adults with a high level of worry about violent crime.
May I place on record my thanks to the police service of this country, which has responded well to the many and various demands placed on it? New challenges continue to arrive and we must ensure that the service is in the best possible shape to meet them. That includes not just funding but getting the best possible service from the police.
The policing Green Paper “From the neighbourhood to the national” represented a radical new deal for the service, freeing it up to focus on tackling local issues in each neighbourhood and to respond to the challenges of serious organised crime and terrorism. We announced that we would scrap all top-down targets for forces, with the exception of one—local confidence. We have done that.
The Green Paper declared that we would create a new model of police accountability, with a stronger role for police authorities and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. We are doing that. It highlighted the work that we are doing, not least through Operation Quest, to maximise the efficiency and productivity of the service. It said that we would invest in the police leaders of tomorrow, which we are doing through a new senior appointments process and a national police leadership college. All that combined means that the service can be more flexible in meeting the challenges of 21st-century policing.
We remain absolutely committed to neighbourhood policing as the bedrock of local policing in the 21st century. We are building a more responsive, locally accountable and citizen-focused police service through a programme to transform policing at a local level to meet the needs of the communities. The current phase of work is to ensure that neighbourhood policing is embedded into core policing activity and that teams increase their focus on working with local communities to identify and tackle local problems together while continuing to provide high-visibility policing, and reducing antisocial behaviour and the fear of crime.
HMIC has today published “Get Smart—Planning to Protect”, which is its report, commissioned by the Government last year, on the planning that forces undertake to deliver protective services. These are particularly significant areas of policing, such as major and organised crime, critical incidents, and domestic and child abuse. HMIC has identified variations across forces in the quality of service planning, and I am committed to seeing improvement made. The National Policing Improvement Agency is working to deliver a comprehensive programme to help develop and support forces in their protective service planning. Police authorities will also be inspected for the first time in 2009 and we will ensure that necessary improvements are made in this area. Legislation is in hand to strengthen collaboration and to ensure that it continues to be a key means of improving protective services.
Total Government revenue spending for police authorities in 2009-10 will be £9,482 million—an overall increase of 2.8 per cent. on 2008-09. Of that general provision, £8,281 million is for police general grants, which will increase by 2.7 per cent. In addition, £1,201 million is for specific grant funding, which I shall come back to later. We have kept ring-fenced funding to a minimum to allow maximum local discretion over how to allocate and spend resources.
The police grant report for 2009-10 deals with Home Office general police grants for revenue expenditure. The amounts payable to individual police authorities are listed in the report that I have presented to the House. Additionally, police authorities in England and Wales receive revenue support grants from local authorities. Overall, general grant allocations to police authorities were set out in my written ministerial statement of 21 January. Within the general grant provision for 2009-10, we have set a funding floor of 2.5 per cent. That means that each police authority in England and Wales is guaranteed an increase of at least that level.
We have provided a settlement that encompasses more than a degree of stability for all police authorities while at the same time acknowledging that there are areas with greater relative needs. There will be increases of up to 3.9 per cent. in the west midlands. There will always be a dispute over how far the needs-based funding formula should be allowed to prevail over the stability provided by the grant floor. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have tried to strike a sensible balance in the settlement and will continue to do so in the future.
There has been no change to the rule 2 grants, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. They are former specific grants, now allocated with the general grants, that total £208 million. Police authorities have complete flexibility on how best to use that resource. Before the comprehensive spending review, we consulted on whether to put the funding back into the formula funding pot, but that could have had a major impact on grant distribution and we decided, on balance, to retain the status quo. That move was widely welcomed by many police authorities, particularly smaller ones that had come to rely on rule 2 funds, such as the rural police fund, as core funding. The position and implications will be reviewed in full before we make any further changes to the special formula grant.
Let me turn to some more specific elements within the funding settlement for 2009-10. We have retained the crime fighting fund in its present form. That fund of £277 million played an important part in supporting growth in police capacity between 2000 and 2004. However, since its introduction the story has moved on, with the employment of more police staff to replace officers in roles where constable powers are not needed and the engagement of police community support officers, who play an important role alongside police officers. The strictures imposed by the CFF’s system of financial penalties had, by 2006, limited the flexibility of forces to engage the right people with the right skills in the right jobs. The Government therefore suspended the CFF criteria in December 2006, allowing local chief officers and chairs to develop the optimum work force mix without losing funding. The move ensured that decisions on the mix of police staff and officers lay where they should, with the chief constable. That was welcomed by the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
There is clear evidence that a good number of forces are using their CFF freedom to release police officers for the front line, replacing police officers in back-office functions with police staff when there is a clear business case that it is right to do so. In some forces, officer numbers are fewer than they were in March 2008, but the essential point is that the replacement of police officers in back-office functions has not had a negative impact on front-line capacity. In a good number of cases, it has increased front-line capacity. The most recent figures show that some forces have increased police officer numbers while others have decreased them.
From 2002 until March 2008, we invested more than £700 million in introducing PCSOs and neighbourhood policing. Home Office funding for neighbourhood policing, including PCSOs, in 2008-09 is £324 million, an increase of 2.7 per cent. For 2009-10, funding has increased by a further 2.7 per cent. for each force to a total of £332 million. A further uplift of 2.7 per cent. is planned for 2010-11.
The basic command unit fund was introduced in 2003-04 for a two-year period that has subsequently been extended. The BCU fund will be £40 million in 2009-10, the same level as in 2008-09.
For several years, the Home Secretary has provided additional funding to ensure that Welsh police authorities receive at least a minimum increase in grant in line with English authorities. For 2009-10, we have again adjusted the Home Office police grant for Welsh police authorities to maintain consistency with England. That additional support will total £15.5 million next year.
We have received 15 representations on the funding settlement from 14 police authority areas. That is considerably fewer than in previous years, and most of the representations have to do with the future. For next year, we have again maximised the increase in general grant and ensured that all police authorities have received a guaranteed minimum increase in grant of 2.5 per cent. The delivery of efficiency and productivity gains, as well as prudent budgeting and making full use of available funding flexibilities, means that there is no reason for excessive increases in the police precepts on council tax. The Government expect an average council tax increase in England of below 5 per cent. Council tax in Wales is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government. We also expect the relentless focus on value for money, which is now more necessary than ever, to continue.
Capital grant and supported capital expenditure totalling £222 million will be allocated in 2009-10, with each police authority receiving the same allocation as in 2008-09. We have also announced additional sums of money for mobile information devices and we have identified additional resources to tackle gun and knife crime. That is something that we will do, as necessary, as we move forward.
We have continued to listen carefully to all stakeholders in determining the detail of this police funding settlement. It gives police authorities the stability that they all need to plan ahead, and it will support the police service in delivering effectively for the public. I commend the report to the House.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive speech. I want to begin my remarks on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition by expressing the sentiment that the police in this country do a very difficult and often very dangerous job on our behalf, and I pay tribute to their service. The police need resources from the Government, and indeed the taxpayer, to discharge their duties in upholding law and order. That is why this debate is so important to us all.
Last year’s crime figures showed that violent crime has risen by almost 80 per cent. in the past decade. Crime has not increased in every category in that period, but violent crime certainly has and that causes great concern to the public. In addition, the economic downturn has placed even greater strain on already tight police budgets. Sadly, the analysis from the Home Office that predicted a rise in crime as the economy worsened has been borne out by the latest quarterly crime figures. In the last year, burglaries have risen by 4 per cent., while fraud and forgery are up by about 16 per cent. and the number of street robberies committed at knife-point have increased by 18 per cent.
This year’s settlement is the second part of the three-year 2007 comprehensive spending review. Excluding additional grants for counter-terrorism and other specific grants, the police settlement increase will be 2.7 per cent. this year, as the Minister said. A total of 20 police authorities will receive the lowest increase, of 2.5 per cent., and the Minister mentioned that there was a bigger-than-average increase for the West Midlands authority.
There is no doubt that the police grant settlement is extremely tight, as the Minister would be the first to accept. Last year, the Association of Police Authorities said that the three-year settlement was one of the “tightest for many years”. In its submission to the 2007 CSR, the joint APA and ACPO expenditure forecasting group said that there would be a funding gap, even with an annual grant increase of 2.7 per cent. The group’s most optimistic assumptions suggested a funding gap that by 2010-11 would be in the region of £660 million. Using less optimistic assumptions, the group calculated that the gap could be as high as £996 million.
The economic downturn has had an adverse impact on the financial position of police authorities. The collapse of Icelandic banks has wiped out about £95 million of police authority reserves, according to information that I have received from the APA. Lower interest rates of course mean that there is less investment income for police authorities, and proceeds from asset sales are lower in a depressed market. The Gloucestershire police authority, for example, estimated in January that the current grant settlement and economic conditions mean that it could lose up to around 60 police officers and 28 PCSOs, as well as 50 police staff posts.
The estimates used by the expenditure forecasting group assume that the police precept on council tax would increase up to that maximum of 5 per cent., but the Minister for Local Government announced in a statement on 28 November that seven police authorities, including Cheshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire, would face precept increase caps of 3 per cent. in 2009-10. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will confirm that those authorities will receive less than the 5 per cent. precept cap.
Of course, Her Majesty’s Opposition oppose excessive increases in council tax, especially in these dire economic times. The Minister will be very well aware that some police forces with historically low police precepts believe that they have no alternative but to seek more revenue from local council tax payers. Does the Minister think that in some police force areas there is a public demand—not a councillor demand—for an increase in locally funded police spending above the cap limit? Has he received any representations from members of the public along those lines?
In last year’s debate, the Minister’s predecessor said that he expected the 2.7 per cent. growth in the police force grant to apply to this year as well, and the Minister has confirmed that today. However, I should like to hear his views on the pre-Budget report statement of 24 November, when the Chancellor announced
“that the Government will now find an additional £5 billion of efficiencies in 2010-11”—[Official Report, 24 November 2008; Vol. 483, c. 489.]
On a point of clarification, will the Chancellor’s demand for extra efficiency affect the 2.7 per cent. increase? I have seen minutes from Lincolnshire police authority and the Met that express the concern that they might be expected to find extra efficiency savings at short notice. Will the Minister clarify the position in relation to that efficiency target? The 2007 CSR set a target for police authorities to make 9.3 per cent. efficiency savings over three years, so will the Minister say whether police authorities are still expected to meet that target? Alternatively, is there a new target—explicit or otherwise—that he wants them to work to, as a result of the catastrophic downturn in the economy and in the fortunes of the Government finances since the CSR statement for the three-year period that we are currently in was made?
I should also like to hear the Minister’s views on some other statements by the Chancellor, who recently announced plans to bring forward £3 billion of capital spending to assist the economic recovery. How much of that accelerated capital expenditure has been channelled into the policing sector, in its widest definition? Many people in the police authorities believe that accelerated local investment could assist improvement in the police estate and also support the local construction industry.
I turn now to some of the minutiae of how the police grant is distributed. The calculation is notoriously complex, and is based on five separate components. The first, the needs-based formula, is easily the most important and is otherwise known in the trade as the principal formula. Its main determinant is the projected resident population, which is then adjusted to take into account several “police crime top-ups” that adjust the main principal formula to take into account socioeconomic and demographic factors that may impact on crime levels. Those factors include how many licensed bars, people in long-term unemployment, daytime residents or residents in terraced accommodation there are in an area, as well as its population sparsity.
Secondly, in coming to a grant settlement, the Home Office will also apply additional rule 1. I will not detain the House on the minute working of that rule, important though it is. It affects the grant provision for South Wales police and redistributes it to other police authorities in Wales.
Thirdly, the Home Secretary will apply additional rule 2. In the past, the Home Secretary distributed specific grants such as the rural policing grant, the forensic grant and the initial police learning and development programme grant. Ministers decided to amalgamate those grants, so that police authorities would have more control over how a number of those funds were used; that was sensible. The distribution of those amalgamated moneys under the additional rule is determined by the principal formula. Fourthly, the Home Office will distribute specific grants. I will not repeat what the Minister said, but there is, of course, a separate pot for counter-terrorism. He also referred to the crime fighting fund and the ring-fencing of funds for neighbourhood policing, all of which we support.
Finally, the police grant floors are applied. The introduction of the principal formula in 1995 was designed to reflect the resource needs of police forces. However, to ensure that the introduction of the formula did not leave forces facing widespread financial instability, floors have been introduced. They guarantee that each police force receives a minimum percentage increase in the police budget, and we heard something about that from the Minister. Notwithstanding his statement, there remains serious concern among police authorities and police forces, in all parts of the country, about how the police grant formula is calculated; the Minister understands that concern because he is a well-informed and listening Minister.
The floors mean that forces cannot receive an increase below 2.5 per cent., even if the principal formula has determined that they do not require such a level of funding. Equally, a police force that should, according to the formula, receive a higher amount will have its grant scaled downwards. As the Flanagan report illustrated, using 2007-08 figures, that meant, at the extreme ends, that the West Midlands force had its grant scaled down by 11 per cent., or £48 million in nominal terms. Bedfordshire received 6 per cent., and Thames Valley police 4 per cent.—less than they would have done if the formula was applied in its raw form. The funds that are taken away from one force are given to another, and that has meant that some forces, such as Northumbria, have received over 12 per cent. more.
Her Majesty’s Opposition welcome the removal of the ceiling, which the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), announced last year when he was Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing. However, I think that all of us—this might even extend to the Minister, judging from his comments—remain less than clear about the future for grant floors. It is worth reminding ourselves of what Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s report on the future of policing said of grant floors:
“If we are to get the best performance return for our investment over the lean times ahead”—
how prescient Sir Ronnie was; he said that in February 2008, before the credit crunch—
“we must start to deal with these anomalies.”
He was referring to the floors. He went on to propose the following:
“I think it prudent that, from that point on, there should be a staged relaxation of the ‘floors and ceilings’ factors which dampen changes in allocations, possibly combined with special consideration for those few Forces which would face the most significant reductions in funding”
as a result of that relaxation.
The Home Affairs Committee supported Sir Ronnie’s proposal. It produced an excellent report, “Policing in the 21st Century”, and I see that the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), is present. The report was thoughtful, and it avoided party politicking and cheap points. Neither he nor I indulge in that kind of business when we are talking about the serious matter of policing the United Kingdom. The report said:
“We support Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s recommendation for full application of the police funding formula at the next Spending Review.”
Can the Minister confirm that the Home Office will implement that proposal, and will he give us his detailed thoughts on it? The Select Committee and Sir Ronnie—an independent adviser to the Home Secretary—think that it is a good idea. Where are we on that?
In November, in a written ministerial statement relating to the settlement that we are considering, the Home Office said:
“Our promised review of the funding formula before the next CSR is already under way with active collaboration from the police community.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 November 2008; Vol. 705, c. 163WS.]
That is reassuring, but the House would be grateful for a bit more specificity on how far that review has gone. Will the Minister show a bit of ankle—to use a colloquialism—and share a bit more detail on how far he has got with that review? Will he say when we might expect an interim announcement on where the Government have got to? Again, this is not a matter of party politics; all of us with a concern about policing need to hear the Minister say more about the future for the formula on the record.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to say something about population figures, because I think that that is an area of technical inadequacy with which all Members on both sides of the House have problems. On 27 November 2007, the then Minister for Borders and Immigration, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), told the Home Affairs Committee that the funding formula used to allocate money to the police for 2008 to 2010 would draw on 2004 national population projections
“simply because that is the best available data.”
Population projection figures form an integral part of the policing formula, as we all know, so is it really acceptable that the budget that we are debating is distributed according to a formula that is fed with data from 2004? I know that the Minister cannot wave a magic wand and get a sub-national version of a census for certain areas, or even a national census before the due date, but he might want to share some of the thinking about the inadequacy of the data, to which his former Home Office colleague, by implication, ’fessed up and drew our attention.
The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that he knows affects my constituency significantly. The inter-census estimation of the population of Slough underestimates its population substantially. As a result, we, a multiracial community, are under-policed. Although the Minister has confirmed again that the money is in the budget, the situation is made worse by the fact that the south-east allowance is not being uprated because it is stuck in the Police Negotiating Board. Perhaps the Minister could, in his summing up, reassure places such as Slough that he will take into account all those issues to make sure that those places, which face real policing challenges, have enough money to deal with those challenges.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I have heard her talk in many forums, not least fairly recently on Radio 4, about her constituency and the problems that she outlines. She is a doughty and persistent debater on that point, drawing to the attention of Ministers what needs to be done for her constituency—and there are others in the same position.
The second point that the hon. Lady raises is also tremendously important. I pay tribute to the Minister, because this time last week, in a debate held in Westminster Hall on the Thames Valley police force area, he said something interesting in response to a question from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). It was along the lines—we have new information from the Minister—that the PNB could be talked to by the Minister. I paraphrase his words. He undertook to have a word about what the PNB was doing in relation to the south-east allowance. Like the hon. Lady, I wonder whether the Minister could give us an update on any discussions that he or his officials have had since last Wednesday in relation to the PNB and the south-east allowance. That is hugely important for all Members in that region. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of that point, so that I can remind the Minister of what he said last Wednesday.
According to ACPO, police forces in Kent, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire have suffered particularly from underfunding. By “particularly” I mean that they have gone out of their way to send briefing to me on these issues, which other police force areas also face. The problem that they have is the gap between predicted and real population figures. Their concerns were drawn together in a presentation given by Chief Constable Grahame Maxwell to the Home Office migration impacts forum on 16 July 2008. There was also a report in The Sunday Times on 27 January last year, in which Kent police observed that the total additional cost caused by immigration at that time stood at £34 million over the three years to that date.
The extra costs of immigration have not been fully recognised in the funding settlement. The chief constable of Cambridgeshire famously gave oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. It strikes me that that Committee teases out some interesting evidence and findings, which provide those who scrutinise Ministers with a great deal of ammunition. Chief Constable Spence said:
“We have had only a 0.3 per cent. increase in the way the formula operated this year”—
in 2007, when she gave evidence. She went on:
“There is nothing within government to be able to respond to the rapid changes that have happened. That was where the problems arose. The funding formulas are not rapid and flexible enough to deal with change.”
Even the former Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) said in oral evidence to the Home Affairs Committee at the end of 2007 that
“the Government collectively is very slow in responding to large growths of population over a particular short period of time”.
That was refreshing candour from the Minister’s predecessor, but we need to hear from the Minister today what has been done. That statement was made at the end of 2007, and there is something on the record about technical changes. We need to know whether it is just down to the Home Office, or to the Home Office together with other Departments, to get this sorted.
The costs to police forces caused by migration, and the translation costs flowing from that, are an extra specific cost of policing. Under a freedom of information request that I issued to forces in United Kingdom, among the 44 forces that responded, there had been a 63 per cent. increase in the cost to those forces of providing interpretation and translation services. In Kent, there had been a 30 per cent. increase, from about £320,000 in 2003-04 to more than £422,000 in 2007-08. In Thames Valley, there has been a whacking 127 per cent. increase in that period. In my constituency in Suffolk, there has been an 86 per cent. increase in translation and interpretation costs in that period—from £113,000 to £210,000.
A report by KPMG in 2007 concluded that Cambridgeshire required an additional 100 police officers to cover the additional work load generated by policing foreign nationals—that was their definition, not ours. The report, “The changing demography of Cambridgeshire”, September 2007, is published by Cambridgeshire constabulary. The methodology behind the funding formula will mean that an additional work load is not being taken into account when these grant moneys are calculated.
On 11 June 2008, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a cross-departmental migration impacts plan that sets up a transitional impacts migration fund from 2009-10. Although the report acknowledged the cost to policing, it was not clear to me whether police authorities could apply for money from the new fund to mitigate the cost of immigration. That was until I heard the Minister’s remarks earlier in today’s debate. For the sake of clarity, can he explain how police authorities can apply for that money? Is there any limit on the amount they can apply for? When can they apply for it? What criteria need to be met? Above all, we need a clear statement of what the review status of the funding formula will be before the next comprehensive spending review starts its progress inside government. Will a new, more dynamic projected population methodology be utilised—yes, no or maybe?
The Flanagan report said:
“The ability of the Funding Formula to predict aspects of complex protective services, such as serious and organised crime, needs to be considered more closely and I would urge the Funding Formula Working Group to review this further.”
That is my real concern, as that is not always flagged up in debates such as this. We have heard about neighbourhood policing, which is hugely important for level 1, but let us not forget level 2 and level 3 resourcing, as Sir Ronnie Flanagan urges.
The Bill that the Minister and I are spending many enjoyable mornings and afternoons this month debating in Committee Room 11 refers to mandation powers relating to collaboration arrangements between forces in England and Wales. Part of the debate tomorrow relates to the level 2 gap in protective services, which is acknowledged by the Government, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, the Opposition and everyone else, but it is not clear to me how the funding formula and the statement from the Minister take account of the resource implications that specific forces mention when they are trying to improve their policy and operational response to serious and organised crime across county and national borders.
In his final report, Sir Ronnie stated in paragraph 2.61 that
“the Funding Formula will need to ensure that the capacity to deal effectively with protective services in terms of deterrence, intelligence-gathering and specialist, proactive capability is built into funding arrangements.”
Will the Minister comment on that? Will his funding review, not just the statement in the House today, say something on Sir Ronnie’s point about protective services?
I know that other hon. Members wish to make a contribution, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. There is the added cost of dealing with alcohol-related crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) on the Front Bench has done much valuable work in drawing attention to the huge policing cost of alcohol-related crime, as has the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, in the report to which I referred earlier.
The most recent British crime survey, from July last year, stated that 45 per cent. of all victims of violence described their assailant as being under the influence of alcohol at the time. There is a wealth of evidence from chief constables as well. Chief Constable Stephen Otter of Cornwall and Devon Constabulary, said that since 2004-05 there has been a
“fairly significant increase in the proportion of violent crime where we can be absolutely sure there is an alcohol-related aspect”.
Indeed, a Cabinet Office review as far back as 2003 said that, on average, it costs £59 more to process an arrestee who has committed an alcohol-related offence than a comparable arrestee whose offence is not alcohol-related. I am sure that the figure is a lot higher if the figures that we have all seen on the costs of bureaucracy and process are anything to go by.
There is a problem with the 24-hour licensing laws. Is the Minister considering Her Majesty’s Opposition’s innovative, radical and much-needed call for discretion to be given to local authorities in new legislation so that they can decide how the 24-hour licensing rules are applied in their areas? The policing formula does not take into account the extra cost of officers trained by forces around London who move to work in the Met; that was the subject of our debate last week, and we have heard about the allowance for the south-east.
In conclusion, in its own right the grant settlement is tight, and we understand why. Given the additional pressures from the economic collapse that this country is experiencing, police authorities face and will face severe financial pressures if they just maintain the current levels of service to local people. We have to make sure that the current structure for distributing the police grant is robust and fair. As I hope I have made clear, there are serious concerns about how the funding formula operates. The review of the police funding arrangements in advance of the next comprehensive spending review provides an excellent opportunity to address the deficiencies, to which I and other hon. Members have drawn attention, in the current distribution process. I look forward to the Minister’s response to our challenge to him—that is, to explain his current thinking.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), who is shadow police Minister. I probably agreed with almost everything that he said. Either I am on the wrong side of the House or he is; I cannot decide who is in the right place. On behalf of members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs who are not here, I thank him for his kind words about the Committee’s report, “Policing in the 21st Century”.
I have had conversations with the hon. Gentleman about the report; he told me that he had read it with great interest. I know that the Minister has as well, and we look forward to the Government’s response and to the Minister’s appearance before us to answer questions about it. There is absolutely no point in such kind words being said about the report, and its being generally well received by the Government and the Opposition, if our recommendations are not implemented. We look forward to that process happening.
I repeat what I said in my brief intervention on the Minister. He knows that I am a great fan of his. Since he has taken on his portfolio, he has been very willing to discuss policing issues with all Members of the House, especially members of the Select Committee. The way in which the Government dealt with the whole process is a good model for the future. If I can be partisan for a moment, I should say that when the Minister announced that Leicestershire was going to be capped, there was great worry among Members from all parties from the city and county, who had been concerned about the possibility of the cap. The Minister for Local Government, who was here at the beginning of the debate, had meetings with those Members and the present Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform, the police Minister’s predecessor. The Minister for Local Government listened to our points about the special case of Leicestershire, and I am pleased to say that he accepted that case. Far too often, Governments make decisions and say that they want to consult but do not do so; this Government and these Ministers, however, have shown that they are prepared to consult and listen.
Leicestershire is aware that, in a sense, the party is over. There are no unlimited funds available for policing. I shall not repeat the statistics mentioned by the Minister and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, but there has been a large increase in the police force budget in the past 10 years. There have been more police officers on the beat and more police community support officers—a role that we invented. The increase has been extremely important and positive. The overall allocation this year is £8 billion-plus and a few hundred thousand here and there, which is a huge amount of money. In Leicestershire, we welcome the 2.8 per cent. increase that we are to have, because that will allow us to continue the services that we provide.
I wish to make only three points during my brief contribution. Originally, I thought that this debate would last an hour and a half—hence my glares at both Minister and shadow Minister. I then realised that there were another two hours to go. Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be pleased to hear that I am not going to speak for that whole period, because other Members wish to participate and I am sure that there will be a wind-up from the Minister.
My first point is about alcohol-related crime, which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds mentioned. I make no apology for repeating this point every time we have a debate on policing. The hon. Gentleman gave the figure: 45 per cent. of victims of violent crime have said that the perpetrator’s behaviour was either influenced by or had connections to the drinking of alcohol. If we talk to any police officer of any rank about what happens in town centres, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings, not only in big cities but in small towns, we will hear about the results of alcohol-related crime. Why on earth should we allow a situation to continue in which we know the cause of the crime and what is happening, and all we do is spend more and more taxpayers’ money on trying to address an issue that the Government can deal with?
I know that there have been a number of Government initiatives, and I welcome what the Home Secretary has said on many occasions about alcohol-related crime. However, the Government should go that little step further and try to do something more about the supermarkets. Why do I say that? The fact is that there is ample evidence to suggest that supermarkets are underselling. Pubs and clubs sell alcohol at a higher price. At this point, I am normally interrupted by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who is chairman of the all-party beer group. He is not here, however, perhaps because it is lunch time and his group is meeting—I do not know. I am casting aspersions on him, and I did not tell him that I would mention him. Anyway, he jumps up and defends the pubs.
I want to ask what we are going to do about the very low prices for alcohol in supermarkets. That is a big problem. In its report, the Select Committee made specific reference to floor pricing, and we asked the Government to consider the issue. That may have been a recommendation; the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) has popped in and may remember precisely what we said. Nevertheless, we felt that floor pricing was the only way to stop people, especially young people, from going into supermarkets and getting tanked up on very cheap alcohol bought under the promotions that every single supermarket in the country is running at this very moment. If anyone leaves the Chamber now and goes to any supermarket anywhere in the vicinity of Westminster, they will see those promotions. Unless we deal with that issue, it will continue to be a major problem for this country.
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. As he will remember, the supermarket spokesmen who gave evidence to the Committee were defensive on that point. The right hon. Gentleman and I both said that the undercutting and the loss-leading sale of alcohol were extremely injurious—particularly to young folk, including those in Leicester, East and Newark. Will he find out from the Minister exactly what has been done about the issue?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that the Minister will have taken note and will respond. As yet, we have not received a full response from the Government on this issue; we hope that it will come shortly.
We hope that urgent action can be taken on this problem, as it can be solved. It will have an impact on the Minister’s budget. We have great sympathy with him; we know that he does not simply get up in the morning and think of a figure that he is going to allocate to local police authorities all over the country. We know that he has to bargain and negotiate with the Treasury. How better to do that than with an array of statistics and initiatives that show that the Home Office is seeking to bring down the cost of policing?
My second point is about police pay. I am pleased with how the Government have handled this issue over the past few months. I never again want to be part of a demonstration where thousands of police officers, who do not have the right to strike, are forced to demonstrate against a Government who have worked with them in such close partnership over so many years. That was a terrible situation. I am glad that over the past few months the Home Office has begun proper and appropriate negotiations with the police and has given them not only a pay settlement that they deserve but the framework for dealing with these issues in future.
On Saturday, I was present at a march with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), when 100,000 British citizens marched through the centre of London. Police officers were there, although there were not a huge number. There was a moment during that demonstration when things nearly went wrong, when several young people, who are very passionate about the situation in Sri Lanka, decided to sit down on Westminster bridge and not move. The way in which the police handled that very difficult situation was absolutely superb. They persuaded the young people to get off the bridge and allow it to be reopened. That takes quality policing. In order to get quality policing, we have to pay police officers the amount of money that is appropriate to their skills. Please let us continue in that vein in future. Let us negotiate, so that we never reach a situation where they have to start demonstrating on the streets of London.
My final point concerns new technology. I hope that the Minister will tell us a little about the legal action that the Home Office has instituted against the company that provided the so-called police portal, which, of course, does not work. We all want the computerisation of the police to happen. We would love to see a situation whereby the police in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and the Metropolitan police were able to access one set of information through one police portal. I think that that was the intention of the National Police Improvement Agency, but it just did not happen. We have probably wasted a huge amount of money on this issue. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening, because it is important that we spend our money wisely, especially in the current economic climate.
Our report mentioned several examples of where Government investment in new technology would make a huge difference not only to the overall cost of policing in future but, more importantly, to the efficiency of local police officers. That means investment in hand-held computers. At the moment, there are 20,000 such devices in the country, and the Government have committed £75 million for another 30,000. However, the Committee says that there is no reason why every single police officer in the country should not have a hand-held device. The time savings are huge. When Bedfordshire police authority bought these devices for its police officers, the amount of time that they spent outside the police station increased, and the time that they spent filling in forms and doing paperwork decreased. The amount of time that they spent processing cases increased as well. BlackBerry has told us—I am not suggesting for one moment that we should go out and buy BlackBerry just because it has given us this information—that its research, which it presented to the Committee during our inquiry, suggests that if every police officer had a BlackBerry, it would give them an extra full hour of time outside the police station.
A lot has been said about the report by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, which is excellent; that is why the Committee adopted most of its recommendations. He talks about new technology and saving time by cutting red tape. Of course, Ministers always tell us that there is going to be a bonfire of red tape. Jan Berry has been appointed as the “cutting of red tape” tsar—whatever her title is; bureaucracy tsar, perhaps. The Committee looks forward to examining her in the near future. The fact is that we need real progress on cutting bureaucracy. That is evident if one goes to any police station in the country and talks to any custody sergeant, as I did when the hon. Member for Newark invited me to visit Newark police station. I pay tribute to all the police officers there. Unfortunately, there was a minor mishap when I thought that a fridge was the place where they kept their lunch, but it was in fact the fridge for DNA samples. Even Back-Bench MPs make gaffes, not just Ministers and Mayors of London. We pay tribute to all that police officers have done and say to them, “We want to increase your time outside the police station doing policing work.”
I urge the Minister to take the plunge and invest in new technology. When the Government make that decision, please could we have central procurement, so that Lincolnshire police buy the same equipment as the police in Staffordshire, and the police in Staffordshire buy the same equipment as the police in Bristol or London? That would mean that we would not have problems about whether people are speaking to each other properly and appropriately, and passing on information. In many high-profile cases, especially concerning children, people talk about sharing information after the event inquiries have taken place.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am most grateful to both right hon. Gentlemen.
The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) makes an astute point. Is there not now clearly a case for a central procurement agency not only for police forces, but for security elements inside the policing apparatus? If we can do it for defence, surely we can do it for security and policing.
The hon. Gentleman is this House’s expert on these matters, so I am not going to challenge his judgment in any way. He is absolutely right. There is a need to look at those processes to see whether we can create what he alluded to.
In conclusion—to allow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) to raise his point of order—I thank the Minister for his allocation so far. We know that things are going to be tough. We may not be thanking him next year, especially in Leicestershire if a cap is put on us, but there are ways in which we can cut costs and invest in the future. Please let us do this and make better what we know we already have—a really world-class police service.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the debate, but it is on a matter of the utmost national importance.
I would like to raise the issue of a judgment made at 1.45 pm today by Lord Justice Thomas in the case of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident currently being held at Guantanamo Bay who has made an accusation of British involvement in torture inflicted on him while being held in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Morocco. The ruling implies that torture has taken place in the Mohamed case and that British agencies may have been complicit—but, most important of all, that the United States Government have threatened our High Court that if it releases this information the US Government will withdraw their intelligence co-operation with the United Kingdom on matters of security. The judge has ruled that there is a strong public interest in this information being put in the public domain even though it is politically embarrassing.
To quote directly from the judgment—I will make this as brief as possible, Madam Deputy Speaker—
“It is plainly right that the details of the admissions in relation to the treatment of Binyam Mohamed as reported by officials of the United States Government should be brought into the public domain…we did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials...relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be. We had no reason...to anticipate there would be made a threat of the gravity of the kind made by the United States Government that it would reconsider its intelligence sharing relationship, when all the considerations in relation to open justice pointed to us providing a limited but important summary of the reports.”
Another part of the report goes on to say that the Foreign Secretary has confirmed that this threat will still remain under President Obama’s new Government.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may I request that you make representations, preferably to the Foreign Secretary, or to the Home Secretary, to come to this House today to make an urgent statement on the involvement of British agencies in torture overseas, and on the right of the United States Government to block a British court from disclosing information given to it?
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On this alleged piece of bribery, bullying or whatever it is that has just been discussed, at the same time as a statement is made by a Cabinet Minister, may we also have a thorough understanding of what the American regime would like us to do with non-British detainees in the former Guantanamo Bay prison?
This police grant statement comes in the second year of a three-year settlement, and in that sense it does not contain any surprises. It remains, however, as was pointed out last year, the tightest police grant settlement for a decade, and as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities pointed out last year, there is a danger of an overall £1 billion shortfall in police funding by 2011. One of the things that they referred to was not just the proportion of money coming from the Government, but the effect of the Government’s constant rate-capping and direction on levels of council tax. The Minister and I debated that issue yesterday in a Public Bill Committee. A MORI opinion poll last year found that 87 per cent. of respondents said that they would be willing to pay more if it went towards direct local policing. Whether we would get quite the same response now that the recession is starting to build up is another matter, but, as we argued yesterday in Committee, that choice should be left to the local community and local police authorities under a directly elected system, rather than being decided by diktat by a Minister in London.
All the points made in last year’s debate remain accurate today, and I will not rehearse most of them in detail because they remain exactly the same. Last year, we discussed the amount of police time spent on paperwork, the increase in violent crime, the lack of adequate technology and the constant creation of new offences—more than 3,500 since 1997. A number of those points have already been touched on in today’s debate. On technology, the issue of hand-held devices that would save police time has already been raised. It surprises me that the staff who work for the council housing department in Chesterfield who do electrical repairs, plumbing and so on are all equipped with such devices, and they are all linked to the central control office through them. The logistics of everything they carry on their vehicles to repair council houses are logged and are readable in the central office in Chesterfield, so that when a call comes in for a repair it is not the nearest vehicle that is sent but the one with the right parts. If the staff of the council housing department can have that sort of technology, which makes them so much more efficient, flexible and cost-effective, it seems incredible that the police in Chesterfield cannot have the same.
The Minister may well say later that pilot schemes are rolling out and developing that technology in various parts of the country, but as with so many experiments with pilot schemes, we have to ask when that process will become universal. It is proven technology, the benefits of which can be seen even in a council housing repair department. Why has it not been rolled out throughout police forces in the UK?
As a side issue, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Select Committee, mentioned central purchasing. Contrary to our debate in Committee yesterday, I do see an argument for a degree of central collaboration or direction in that case. One police officer whom I talked to in Chesterfield told me that many police forces buy a variety of motor vehicles because there is no custom-built standard for the British police, whereas American police forces tend to have a standard police cruiser. He told me that some of the computer devices provided for use in cars cannot be mounted on the dashboard because there is such a mish-mash of purchasing policy. Vehicles are often too small and not suitable for such new technology. The delivery of technology raises some issues that need be considered, but it is such a basic process in this day and age, it is hard to understand why the technology has not been rolled out across all 43 police authorities.
To nail this point about mobile information devices, I say to the hon. Gentleman that all Home Office-funded police forces in England and Wales, and all police forces in Scotland, have now received funding. We expect 30,000 hand-held devices to be in use by front-line officers in April 2010. Although the technology was originally being rolled out in phase 1, phase 2 is now online. Millions of pounds are being spent to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman suggests.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. It would be churlish to say better late than never—but none the less, that is now on the record.
On the constant creation of new offences—3,500 or more in 10 years—we are in the process of discussing the 66th Home Office Bill in this area, with the Public Bill Committee considering it starting last week, and it will create a variety of new offences. One proposal that was debated on Second Reading, and which I mentioned in Committee last week, is the fine of up to £500 that is available for people found drinking alcohol in a public place where drinking is prohibited. The current Bill proposes to increase that figure to £2,500, but as we clarified in Committee and on Second Reading, although the maximum fine is £500 no one has ever been fined more than £250, and very few have been fined more than £100. That is symptomatic of a process where legislation is constantly used to grandstand—to send messages in pursuit of media headlines—but has no practical benefit for the front-line police officer. In fact, it can be quite the reverse if it is simply throwing extra regulation and paperwork at police officers on the beat, who have far better things on which to spend their time.
Legislation on cut-price alcohol sales in supermarkets, however, which the Chair of the Select Committee referred to earlier, would be a much more beneficial and effective process. Regrettably, however, such provisions are missing from the Bill that we are discussing in Committee. I have been on patrol with front-line officers and seen them dealing with the public effects of alcohol, and they would welcome the effects of such legislation far more than a measure that the Minister said was simply intended to send a message—effectively, to get a headline instead of having a direct, practical effect.
All of last year’s debate remains relevant, although we do not need to return to two parts of it. The current Minister has not had to announce a cut in the numbers of police community support officers from 24,000 to 16,000, as was announced last year, and he has not had to take the flak for refusing to implement in full a police pay award. That happened last year, although officers remain demoralised and angry about it to this day.
What are the new issues that affect policing? The Association of Police Authorities observed that the next four years will be very difficult. It gave several reasons for that, one of which was the tight funding regime in place between now and 2011, which we knew about from the start of the three-year settlement last year. There may also be cuts after that; we cannot know for certain, but it certainly looks increasingly likely. We are told that many authorities and chief constables face stark choices over the next four years, including inevitable reductions in police officer numbers. We have seen that happen in some authorities already last year and this year.
At the same time, however, with tighter, sometimes decreasing, budgets and a reduction in police officer numbers, there is a constant expansion in local demand and in the expectations of what the police can deliver. Some of that is a result of modern society. Today, almost universally, people have mobile phones, and they are much quicker to ring the police—or their councillor or MP—to make a complaint. They are much more likely, especially at odd hours of the day, to get on the internet and send an e-mail to all and sundry, including the police, councillors and the local MP, demanding action. In the past, they would have had to use a land-line to ring an office hoping to get someone on the other end, and a lot of people did not do that. The 24-hour media that we have these days constantly hype up crime issues, which creates a lot more pressure and expectation from below about what the police can do. Those rising expectations will only increase.
The Government have the best intentions, which we support, but they too are increasing that pressure. For example, a welcome policy is the idea that everybody in a police beat area, usually corresponding to a council ward, should have access to a mobile phone number that should in theory be answered fairly promptly by the beat officer or PCSO who has that equipment. As that service becomes more publicised and available, it will inevitably mean far more calls from members of the public, putting more demands on the police. If the police cannot meet those demands, it will create a vicious circle of frustration, with the public saying, “There’s no point. The police aren’t doing anything. They never answer.” At a time when budgets are tighter, and when budgets and police numbers might fall over the next few years, there will be more and more pressure from the public for more action.
Another matter that we discussed in Committee yesterday was the community call for action, which was provided for in the Police Act 2006 and is about to be implemented. When members of the public know about that, they will beat a path to the door of their local councillor, whether for their parish, town, district, borough, city or unitary area—the public do not draw such distinctions—and say, “I have heard that under the law, you have to take action if I raise an issue with you about vandalism, burglary, nuisance, speeding traffic” or whatever. All those councillors will rush off to the appropriate bodies—crime and disorder reduction partnerships, police authorities and so on—saying that they want action. Many of them already do that. With tightening budgets and falling police officer numbers, what will often be the answer over the next few years? “We haven’t got the resources to deal with that.” On top of that, we have increasing Government direction of national priorities and roles, which could clash with the requirement for police authorities to have regard to the views of the local community.
It strikes me that given the pressures that my hon. Friend has outlined, and the fact that a lot of people will, sadly, lose their jobs in the coming year, there may be people who are confident, able and willing to be employed by police authorities as civilians, but who would not be willing to become police officers. They could help to do a lot of jobs, provided that the budgets were available.
Indeed, and over recent years a lot of authorities have brought more civilians in to release police officers from desk work and get them out on the beat. The more the budget tightens, however, the less possible that becomes.
As we have heard, another factor to consider is population shifts, which may well worsen, especially those that arise from waves of migrant workers. When the EU enlarged recently the Government predicted how many people would come from Poland and various eastern European states, but their predictions were well under the number who came in reality. The Government said that they expected a lot of those migrant workers to come over here and work for two, three or four years to raise money, then go back to start their own businesses, or to return when the economy changed, as in the case of the recession that is building up.
The speed of those population fluctuations caused major problems for councils, the health service, schools and the police. The then police Minister, the right hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), said in last year’s debate, “Yes, that is a very good point, and we should look at it.” The present Minister said the same this afternoon, so when will the action come? What reassurance can the Minister give that there will be fairly prompt action on a matter that has never been dealt with—getting resources quickly to the police, councils, education authorities and others to deal with rapid population fluctuations? Those fluctuations often involve people who have English as a second language, which is another issue entirely. The police in Lincolnshire, for example, have been caused major problems by the soaring cost of their interpretation budget because of the eastern European groups who are working there in agriculture. There are also many such examples in urban areas, and various problems are developing.
That is a really big issue for boroughs such as mine as well as for rural areas, as my hon. Friend said. It would be really helpful if Ministers from the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government said that they would take the new information from the Office for National Statistics and put a new, up-to-date system in place by the time of the next three-year grant allocation at the latest. We have not yet heard that, and it must be a minimum demand and expectation.
That is a very welcome commitment, but it is difficult to see how the Government can react quickly enough to deal with certain population flows. I have spoken to the staff of schools in inner-city areas of Birmingham and London that have had problems. With rapidly fluctuating pupil numbers, it is difficult to get the money flowing fast enough to make a difference rather than provide it two years later. However, I hope that the Government will be able to take action on that.
Another major issue is the levelling off of police authorities’ potential to make cash efficiencies. The Home Office document “Efficiency and Productivity Strategy for the Police Service 2008-11” states:
“The financial climate of the next three years will be tougher and achieving significant cashable improvements in efficiency and productivity over 2008-11 will therefore be central to delivering the Police Service’s mission of delivering community safety.”
However, the APA points out that in the past 10 years more than £2 billion of efficiency savings have been made, most of which have been recycled into meeting new police demands and supporting the delivery of the service. However, it observes that that has become increasingly difficult in the past year or two, and that in the next few years it will become almost impossible for efficiency savings to be addressed directly to dealing with budget shortfalls. It states that
“the longer term prospects worsen considerably”
because, added to the factors that I have listed, the recession means that there will be a loss of interest income from investments, reduced proceeds from property sales and increased costs of imported goods. It gives the specific example that uniforms, which are generally imported, and some specialist equipment that is imported have already increased in cost by 30 per cent. in the past few months, due to exchange rate changes. The council tax base is nearly static due to continued capping, and the recession is creating more low-level crimes such as burglary, shoplifting, robbery and shed breaking. All those things cause increased demands on the police.
The most recent quarterly crime statistics, and figures released following a freedom of information request by The Independent, show increasing crime—a widely predicted result of the recession. On 17 January, The Independent gave the example of forces such as Greater Manchester, Suffolk, Gloucestershire and Cumbria, all of which had seen
“increases of between 25 and 50 per cent. Lincolnshire police saw the biggest rise, a 97 per cent. increase in robbery between September and November—the most recent three-month period collated by the force—compared with the same three-month period the previous year.”
Those figures were more up to date than those that the Home Office released a month later, which raises the point that we have often made about the need for believable independent statistics. If the Government were to pass the responsibility for the figures entirely to the Office for National Statistics, that would remove all the questions about their validity and their early or late issue for political reasons. The statistics that were produced, partly through a freedom of information request, showed a clear increase in crime at the lower level of burglary, shed breaking, robbery and so on, co-ordinating with the start of the recession. That was exactly what history told us was likely.
A rise in crime produces more work for the police and puts more strain on them. It means that they need more manpower and potentially more overtime, yet all that comes at a time of tightening and eventually decreasing budgets and falling police numbers. Police authorities need some specific answers. First, will the specific central Government funding for PCSOs, and for the substantial number of police who are funded by direct special grants rather than the general grant, remain in place after 2011, to which date it is guaranteed?
Secondly, the Government brought forward £3 billion of capital spending to assist in economic recovery, but none of it went towards improvements in the police estate. We are told that the Government are preparing a further tranche of that funding as part of the forthcoming Budget. Do the Government have any further plans to release capital investment in the police estate? That would boost the construction industry, create jobs and, above all, take pressure off local police authority budgets where there are dilapidated police stations that need replacing and other facilities that need improvement.
The issues that we have considered so far apply generally to all 43 police authorities in England and Wales. However, some issues apply more to specific police authorities. For example, 15 police authorities—just under 30 per cent.—were affected by the Icelandic banking crisis. The outcome of the crisis, and, therefore, its full impact, remain unclear and will be for some time. The increasing uncertainty and risk for the affected authorities is a cause of great concern, and the Government have provided support so far. Continuing Government support for repaying the loans involved is required, especially if repayment is delayed or money has to be written off as a result of what happened in Iceland.
Another much bigger and longer-running issue affects some but by no means all police authorities, and several hon. Members referred to it earlier. It is the formula for funding police authorities. To the Government’s credit, after saying that they would tackle the matter in 1997 when they came to power, they eventually introduced a fairer funding formula nearly 10 years later. However, they told the worst-hit authorities that it would be years before the underfunding was made up. Telling police authorities that they were underfunded by specific amounts but that they could not have the money caused consternation. As yet, no date has been set for ending the floors and ceilings mechanisms and the underfunding of so many authorities.
The Minister has already referred to the fact that all the police authorities in the east midlands, parts of which we both represent—in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, the Minister’s area of Nottinghamshire and my area of Derbyshire—are affected, as are many others throughout the country. He said this afternoon that the formula is being reviewed again for 2011 onwards. However, let us remember the history.
Before 1997, the shire counties that lost out worst from the funding formula had a long-running campaign—the F40 campaign. In 1997, the Government said that they would review the position. In 2006-07, nine years later, they introduced the new formula but said that they could not provide the money that they admitted authorities needed.
I shall now be slightly parochial. Last year, Derbyshire was the fourth worst-funded police authority in England and Wales. This year, it sank to third lowest, with only Suffolk and Essex in a worse position. Under the new, “fair” formula that was introduced in 2006-07, Derbyshire has lost £16 million so far. The Government say that Derbyshire needs that money to provide adequate policing, but that it cannot have it. This year, Derbyshire will lose another £5 million, and another £5 million in the subsequent year. That is equal to 3 per cent. of the force’s entire budget every year and more than 160 police officers on the beat.
Derbyshire has had to plug the gaps in the underfunding by using its reserves, but they are coming to an end. In a year or two, there will be no more reserves to plug the gap in the funding that the Government say that Derbyshire needs, but that they will not provide. It is impossible to understand why the worst funded authorities in the country, some of which, like Derbyshire, have experienced the problem for more than 20 years, must bear the brunt of a tight police grant settlement.
Police officers and constituents in Chesterfield simply cannot understand that we are the third worst-funded police authority in the country yet we must continue to be underfunded because of overall problems with the police grant.
The Minister said that he had received only 15 representations this year—far fewer than last year. Perhaps police authorities have simply given up because they meet the same stonewalling every year. Will the Minister offer any genuine hope to the worst-funded authorities, such as Derbyshire, that all the unequal funding of recent years will end? After all, the councils and fire authorities that suffered from the funding formula have had their historic problem removed and levelled out much more quickly. Why are police authorities singled out to bear the brunt of what the Government admit was an unfair formula, saying that they should have more money, but that they cannot have it?
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate on the police funding settlement this year. I shall focus my brief remarks on my police force area of Dyfed-Powys. Last week, in Westminster Hall, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) initiated a short debate on the subject, and I am grateful for some of the assurances that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) gave in response to it. I am also grateful for the Minister’s comments today; I appreciate the steps that are being taken to ensure parity between English and Welsh forces, and the 2.5 per cent. grant floor.
I want to impress on Ministers the deep concern among members of the Dyfed-Powys police authority and officers at various levels in the organisation. In last Wednesday’s debate in Westminster Hall, the Under-Secretary said that he had received no representations from the authority this year on the settlement. However, I assure him that Members who represent constituencies in the area have received strong representations. That is shown not only by the fact that I am raising the matter, but by the presence of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and the intervention by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik).
Let me reinforce some of the points that we have been trying to convey to Ministers in recent weeks. The starting point is the enormous area that the Dyfed- Powys police force covers—the largest in England and Wales, taking in the counties of Powys, Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and my county of Pembrokeshire, and comprising hundreds of disparate small villages and small town communities. Hon. Members who go on holiday to mid and west Wales will be familiar with the long, slow roads in the area. That poses significant challenges to policing. Given the size of the police authority area, it is worth pointing out that Dyfed-Powys has the third smallest police force. That immediately poses a challenge to the chief constable of how to deploy personnel across such a vast area.
Last week, in the Westminster Hall debate, the Under-Secretary described Dyfed-Powys police authority as well resourced. Like many hon. Members, I have a six-monthly night out with my local police. On a Saturday night, the police authority does not feel especially well resourced. All it takes in my police division of Pembrokeshire is one road traffic accident, a fight outside a local nightclub and one domestic violence incident for the force to start to feel stretched.
I want to put on record the important role that volunteers play in the police force. On my most recent Saturday night with my local police, I witnessed the important role that not only special constables, who give up their time, but volunteers in the CCTV control centre, play. We want to encourage such volunteering. There are all sorts of benefits from engaging more civilian volunteers in police operations, but the police should never have to perceive volunteers as an absolute necessity for delivering policing at busy times such as a Saturday night.
Other factors in the Dyfed-Powys area are relevant to the discussion—tourism, for example. In the summer the population swells considerably. The pressure on public services arising from a significant increase in the local population in the summer months is never fully taken into account.
We also have an enormous coastline, which includes two major ferry ports, connecting west Wales with Ireland, at Pembroke Dock and Fishguard. We have the growing energy hub at the port of Milford Haven, with two of the UK’s major oil refineries, the UK’s largest fuel storage depot and the two major liquefied natural gas terminals, which will come on stream shortly. I shall say more about the LNG terminals shortly.
Dyfed-Powys police do a remarkably good job, given their resources and the challenges they face, in holding down crime rates and reassuring the public. They have achieved some excellent scores in crime detection and bringing rates down across the full range of crimes. However, a member of the police authority told me that some of the statistics, which on the face of it are good news stories, are
“somewhat fragile and patchy in some areas of activity.”
The force admits that some of the confidence and public satisfaction scores that it gets are not quite as good as they should be. I share the concerns that have been communicated to me by the police authority, not only about the tight settlement for this year, but about the uncertainties surrounding funding in future years and about what might happen to the rural police grant. Those concerns mean that the authority has serious questions about its ability to improve on its current scores.
Dyfed-Powys police force has made great progress in the past few years on achieving efficiency gains. Between 2005-06 and 2007-08, it achieved efficiency savings of £9.8 million, well above its target of £7.3 million. The theory is that the force should be using those efficiencies to invest in, for example, protective services and other Government priorities. However, the force tells me that it has to use those efficiency savings just to maintain baseline services, and there is very little capacity to make improvements. The force has particular concerns about the expectations in the policing pledge—about its ability, for example, to respond to emergency and non-emergency calls within 20 minutes on all occasions, and about the timescales in which victims of crime need to be informed. Being able to meet those expectations is challenging.
Several hon. Members have already mentioned the rural police grant. I would like to reiterate the points that have been raised. There is concern in Dyfed-Powys police force authority about the future of the rural police grant. I am not, perhaps, expecting the Minister to say any more about that than his colleague has already said in this debate, but I would like to impress upon him the needs of rural areas and the challenges that rurality throws up. If he cannot say what the future holds for the rural police grant, I would be grateful if he could give an indication of what his thinking is on how different aspects of rurality will be taken into account in the discussions and considerations about the future of the rural police grant.
Let me return to my point about the liquefied natural gas terminals. There is significant concern about how well protected those facilities are. Just to remind hon. Members, in the years ahead the two LNG terminals will have the capacity to import 30 per cent.—almost a third—of the UK’s entire natural gas requirement. They are clearly a significant piece of national infrastructure. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that in great detail, but concern has been communicated to me about a proposed reduction in the funding for officers engaged in security work at the port of Milford Haven. I do not want to speculate about why that might be so or about where else resources might be deployed. However, if the Minister receives an application from the police force in Dyfed-Powys for additional resources to support the policing of the LNG terminals, I would ask him to look favourably on that request.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, albeit only briefly. I commend the Minister on the fact that he has always been responsive to representations made to him about the police settlement. Indeed, I think that I am the third Member from the Dyfed-Powys police area to contribute to today’s debate. We do so on the basis that we are very proud of our police force. The people who live in the Dyfed-Powys area are basically satisfied with the service that they get. They complain from time to time about police visibility, but we live in a sparsely populated area. It is a challenge for the chief constable to deploy his forces around that area to give people confidence.
However, the force does a lot of good. I attended an event last week at which awards were given to police officers, specials, police community support officers and back-room staff for the work that they had done in the Powys area. The citation on each award read “For making Powys a safer place”. That must be the aim of the police force.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) raised a number of points, which I would like to reinforce. In a way, the representations that we are making today are not about the present police settlement, but about its future. Mention has been made of Ronnie Flanagan’s report, which, if I understand it correctly, says that the formula must be adhered to more strictly. However, the fact that the funding for many Welsh police forces depends on exceptions being made to the formula, rather than on the formula being delivered right across the piece, is important. Indeed, if the floor—the minimum of 2.5 per cent. of the settlement—were not implemented for all four Welsh police authorities, there would be a loss to those authorities of £15 million.
I also want to mention the rural policing grant. The rule 2 grants make a contribution to the funding of authorities, but most of those grants are spread among all the police authorities, whereas the rural policing grant goes to only a limited number of authorities. That being the case, certain police authorities would suffer disproportionately if the rural policing grant were abolished or if the rule 2 grants were brought within the formula. If that happened, it would be difficult for Dyfed-Powys police to maintain the standard of policing that the people living in the area have come to expect. If we were to aspire to the same level of policing, there would be a huge increase in the precept, and in the council tax that people would have to pay—and we know how unfairly council tax falls on the lowest paid in our communities.
I want to comment on one other issue. At the moment, the area that I represent has only one set of custody cells for an area that extends for about 80 miles south to north and about 40 miles east to west. That means that putting somebody arrested in Llandrindod Wells into a custody cell requires a journey of at least 30 miles, which takes police officers away from their duties, just to take a prisoner from a police station without a custody cell to one with a good custody suite. It is important to make the appropriate capital investment in the infrastructure, so that the police can spend their time dealing with the issues that the public expect them to deal with, rather than having to transport prisoners.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about custody suites. We have a new all-singing, all-dancing custody suite in the Pembrokeshire division. However, officers have raised with me concerns similar to the hon. Gentleman’s point, about how making arrests in different parts of the area now ties up an awful lot of police time. One of those concerns is that the new custody suite might create a disincentive to bringing into custody people who would previously have been taken into custody closer to where the offences were committed.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Both of us are making the point that investment in capital works—such as new buildings and new custody suites—can improve policing quite considerably, to an extent that would be noticed and appreciated by the general public. I am talking in particular about Llandrindod Wells, where there is a scheme for a new police station with custody cells and a magistrates court, which will be integrated with an ambulance station and a fire station, so that we can have all the emergency services co-operating as one.
Although we in the Dyfed-Powys police area accept the present settlement and understand the circumstances in which it has been made, we are not happy with it. We look forward to a review of the formula to make it work, although we view that process with trepidation. We understand that there is only one representative from Wales on the group that will review the formula. We just hope that Wales’s special needs will be reflected in the outcome of those considerations.
This is a welcome opportunity to debate the police grant settlement, which forms about half of the police’s funding, the rest coming from the local government finance system—a combination of revenue support, non-domestic rates and council tax. There cannot be many MPs who are entirely happy with the Government’s handling of the police pay settlement last year—we all received a sizeable postbag on the matter—because the Government clearly got it wrong, and Ministers probably regret the way in which they handled it at the time. The pay settlement has left a legacy of bitterness. I can still go into my local police station in Reading and see the posters on the wall that say “Tough on crime, tough on the fighters of crime”. I know that the Government have since tried to address the pay settlement, but the bitterness will remain for some time. What happened has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to pay tribute to my local police force, the Thames Valley police, for its continuing hard work and good performance. This year’s unremarkable police settlement reflects the overall spending review provision from the Home Office—that is, no real-terms increase. This translates into a 2.7 per cent. increase in the general police grant for 2009-10. It is true that Thames Valley police is quite fortunate, because it is one of the police authorities to receive a higher police grant allocation, compared with other shire authorities. It will receive £238 million this year, which equates to a 2.7 per cent. increase on last year’s settlement. That is not one of the highest settlements, but, fortunately, it is not one of the lowest either. I am grateful to the Home Secretary, who recognises the importance and the position of the Thames Valley force, because of its close proximity to London, and has allocated funds accordingly. Despite that, however, there are certain issues that it will be useful for me to put on record today.
I have mentioned before that the Thames Valley police force suffers from considerable problems of officer retention. A major concern is that the Metropolitan police is able to pay its officers much more than Thames Valley police can pay its equivalent officers. The Met is also able to give its officers free travel within a 70-mile zone right around London. The south-east allowance, which was introduced a few years ago in an effort to curb a further manpower drain, has remained frozen, while the Metropolitan police’s London weighting allowance has continued to rise.
The incentive gap has therefore become wider, and it has become much more attractive for Thames Valley officers to move to London to improve their economic position. This is now causing a serious problem for the Thames Valley force. Its chief constable, Sara Thornton, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee when it happened to be meeting in my constituency, said that she would be in favour of increasing the south-east allowance by £1,000 a year to make it easier for officers living in the south-east not to get sucked in by the extra pay and free travel that they would get for working in London.
I believe that the chief constable has since met—and continues to have an important dialogue with—the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing, with the intention of introducing the flexibility further to increase the south-east allowance. In a debate in Westminster Hall last week, it became clear that Thames Valley police had the money in its budgets to fund that allowance and to make it available. During the debate, I think that the Minister said that an uplift in the allowance in the south-east would cost about £20 million, and that he referred to a figure of about £2 million to achieve the uplift in the Thames Valley police area. I hope that he will correct me if I am wrong.
I have not got the figures for the south-east allowances with me at the moment. However, I did say that the moneys in the budget for those allowances were not a matter of additional resource, which I think was helpful to the general debate. Perhaps the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) will verify that. I also said that this is not a ministerial decision; it is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board to come to an agreement with all the various bodies involved on how to resolve the issue. While I am on my feet, I should also like to say, in response to being asked to “have a word” about these matters, that it was not so much a matter of having a word; it is just that I saw this as a matter for the board and as a priority for it to resolve it. I know that that is what it is trying to do.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. I am absolutely delighted to hear him repeat that this is a matter for the Police Negotiating Board; that was stated last week and it has now been repeated this afternoon. I welcome that statement.
If the Thames Valley force takes its case to the negotiating board and is successful, it will be committed to paying that additional allowance. I hope that that will go some way towards alleviating the problem of experienced officers being sucked into the London Metropolitan police area. I should like to make it clear that I am not advocating any additional grant resources to the Thames Valley, but if the force is to retain its best officers, it will need the Minister’s support to try to resolve this situation.
Its costs the Thames Valley police £55,000 to train each trainee constable, but it has lost 242 officers in the past five years. It would be a drain on any force for those numbers to continue, and this issue is an increasingly difficult problem and a big financial drain for the Thames Valley force. Anything that the Minister can do to help will certainly be appreciated by the chief constable.
Thames Valley police has become a training ground for the Metropolitan police, and my constituents—along with the other people served by the force in the wider Thames Valley—will undoubtedly suffer a poorer service if that is allowed to continue. Indeed, the chief constable has said publicly that the force is a very young one, and that it needs experienced officers as part of the overall mix of officers in the area. In addition to the £1,000 uplift for police pay in the Thames Valley force that the chief constable is asking for, there also needs to be an agreement with the Metropolitan police that it will not poach significant numbers of police officers. That would be extremely welcome to the chief constable in the Thames Valley, and I am sure that the Minister will do all that he can to facilitate such an agreement.
I would like to raise a number of other financial issues, particularly in relation to population growth. The chief constable has raised significant concerns about the impact of population growth right across the Thames Valley, and I know from my experience of living in Reading for the past 25 years that the city has grown significantly in that time. Of course, more recently, immigration has added enormously to that population pressure. Several years ago, I was briefed by the police in Reading that much of the serious organised crime in Reading was run by immigrants, many of whom were in the country illegally. I would be interested to get an update on that from Thames Valley police, and to hear whether the Minister has any further information on whether there has been any improvement.
My hon. Friend is making a strong and compelling case. Does he agree that the problem with the extrapolation of population statistics with regard to the funding formula is that they are based on out-of-date figures from 2004, and that those figures should have been updated before the comprehensive spending review? Does he agree that this is having a direct impact on front-line policing across the country?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I know that Slough has had many problems dealing with extra numbers and the resultant financial pressures put on many public services. No doubt Peterborough faces a very similar set of challenges.
The impact of population growth on police services needs to be recognised, so it is only right for the police authority to be consulted on major spatial plans, for example. Support to secure resources from the planning system to meet the costs of infrastructure development is also important for the policing of the expanding Thames Valley region. All that certainly needs to be looked at. We need to think about whether section 106 money should be used to help support the additional policing infrastructure that will be necessary in the years to come as the population expands. That is worth considering. I know that at this particularly difficult time in the middle of a recession, local authorities are going to guard jealously their income from section 106 money, so it is not going to be a particularly easy nut to crack if the Minister decides to go down that particular avenue.
With the current level of population growth, Thames Valley police estimate that their capital costs for new buildings and so forth will be about £90 million—just to keep pace with the level of services provided now. The chief constable has said that the force will have real problems trying to generate that level of capital receipts, so it looks as though there might be another funding gap in the future. He also estimates that the number of staff, including officers, that Thames Valley will need will have to grow to about 1,200—again just to maintain the current level of policing services.
I know that there is a link to population in the revenue support grant, but the floors and ceilings apparently mean that minimal additional revenue grant will be generated for the Thames Valley police. That needs to be looked into further. There are also other funding pressures. The Olympics, for example, is clearly going to suck in resources from the Thames Valley, and it would be interesting to hear the Minister explain how that extra resourcing might be handled and what sort of extra support a force such as Thames Valley will be able to get when it has to provide so many police officers for the Olympics.
Counter-terrorism is another important issue. I cannot speak as freely as I would like on this occasion, so all I will say is that a significant threat still remains within the Thames Valley. I know that there is a specific grant for counter-terrorism, for which we are very grateful, but the pressure is likely to get much worse before it gets better. There is the potential for extremism in Reading, Slough, High Wycombe and other centres in the Thames Valley despite all the excellent work that goes on in those local areas to combat the threat.
I have recently been critical of the detection rates of the Thames Valley police. It is actually one of the worst- performing authorities in the country in that respect. We are not doing well, and that needs to be said. However, I say it as a friend, albeit a critical friend, of the Thames Valley police. The force is doing many things particularly well, but there is enormous room for improvement on detection rates.
I would like to say that we have a particularly good team in Reading, made up of active, responsive and forward-thinking officers, and I would like to repeat the praise I expressed in last week’s Westminster Hall debate for Superintendent Steve Kirk, who does a quite outstanding job across my Reading, East constituency. I have also been very pleased by the roll-out of neighbourhood policing in my constituency. It has the potential to make a real difference over time, particularly if it is coupled with a drive to reduce red tape and bureaucracy.
The impact of all the extra money that has gone into policing over the years has to some extent been dissipated because police officers spend less and less of their time on the street performing their front-line duties. There is way too much bureaucracy put upon police officers. I have heard that from them first hand. Like many colleagues, I have been out on my mountain bike with officers in Reading, East; I have been out in the town centre in a van, and I have spoken to officers. They have told me many stories. For example, I heard about an officer arresting a shoplifter at 9.30 in the morning and then having to write off the entire shift while he processed that one person through the system. There are, of course, many more such examples that I am sure colleagues could add. If we could sort out those problems, we could get more return on the investment we make in police officers. In turn, that would massively improve the prospects of neighbourhood policing making an impact.
As I said earlier, I am not asking for more money. I do not think that the Thames Valley police actually need any more money today, but they may well need money in the near future. Any support in the particular areas I mentioned would, I am sure, be very welcome to the chief constable of Thames Valley police.
I express my sincere apologies for not being present at the commencement of the debate—[Interruption.] The Minister says from a sedentary position that I have been busy writing my speech. [Interruption.] In fact, I have been delayed by the vicissitudes of National Express East Coast in travelling down from my constituency.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to debate the police grant settlement for 2009-10. I pay tribute to my local police force, the Cambridgesire constabulary, and particularly to the northern basic command unit, which covers my constituency, under the leadership of Chief Superintendent Andy Hebb. They are all doing a very difficult job on behalf of my constituents.
I want to talk about the very real funding difficulties experienced by the Cambridgeshire constabulary. Members will know that I have raised the issue on a number of occasions and that I was fortunate enough to secure a Westminster Hall debate in February last year on police funding in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire. Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, along with Kent and Lincolnshire, are in a parlous financial position. They urgently need a review of their formula allocation for the next financial year as well as, I would argue, a review for 2010-11. The allocations should be reviewed as a result of a unique set of circumstances, which I will outline to provide some background.
Cambridgeshire is to receive a 3 per cent. increase in its formula funding allocation in 2009-10, despite the fact that it has the third lowest number of police officers per head of population in the whole of England and Wales. In the northern basic command unit, incorporating my constituency, we have actually a seen a fall in the number of full-time equivalent police officers over the last six years. Indeed, the Minister provided that information in a parliamentary answer to me on 29 January, which appears in column 828W of Hansard. A table shows a fall from 215 officers per 100,000 people in 2003 to 178 in the last financial year.
Hon. Members will be aware of my consistent lobbying over a number of years for fairer funding for Cambridgeshire. I will not rehearse all the arguments that I raised in the Adjournment debate, at which the Minister was present, but it would be apposite to refer to a number of them today, because in many respects we have not moved forward over the last year.
Cambridgeshire has been among the five worst-funded police authorities in the last six years. Like other police authorities, it will be asked to bear real-terms cuts over the next two years at least, as well as general inflationary pressure and Home Office edicts in respect of efficiency savings, first outlined in the comprehensive spending review of 2007. As the Minister will know, the authority has little effective discretion to alter that dismal situation within the prevailing capping regime.
I commend to the House an excellent report published in November 2007, entitled “The changing demography of Cambridgeshire: implications for policing”. It focused on the specific demographic, social, economic and cultural changes that face the county over the next 10 years or so, including population changes, migration from both within and outside the United Kingdom, growth in higher education numbers, issues involving Gypsies and travellers, and tourism, which is, of course, a particular issue in the Cambridge area.
Today, however, I wish to focus on the practical impact of migration—specifically European Union migration—on my constituency and throughout Cambridgeshire, its particular impact on crime and policing, and the financial impact that that will inevitably involve. I recently met a member of the police authority who explained to me that if a police officer in Peterborough stops an individual from, say, Lithuania or the Czech Republic in connection with the committing of a possible offence—or, indeed, if that person has been the victim of a crime—the need for translation and interpretation services can double or treble the time that it takes to process the individual.
Cambridgeshire constabulary’s recent briefing to the Migration Impacts Forum, published last month, illustrates the significance of that example. In every month of the calendar year to 31 December 2008, with the exception of January and June, more than 20 per cent. of detainees processed through the custody suite in the northern basic command unit were non-UK citizens. In the last year, across the whole force, 800 Lithuanians, more than 700 Poles and 300 Portuguese citizens have been processed, most of whom spoke little or—usually—no English.
Use of Language Line, a telephone translation and interpretation service, increased last year from an average of 373 calls per month to 497 per month in the period up to November 2008. In the last financial year Cambridgeshire spent £1 million on translation and interpretation services, whereas in 2002 it spent only £224,000. Moreover, 50 per cent. of detainees questioned about drink-driving and disqualified driving offences in the northern basic command unit were non-UK citizens, while 84 per cent. of the 213 warrants issued by the magistrates courts in Peterborough for minor offences were issued for EU nationals.
Ministers have known for at least three years about the impact of large-scale immigration on policing but have failed to reflect it in their funding allocations, despite the promises to listen and act delivered by this Minister, his predecessors and, indeed, Home Secretaries during Home Office questions over those three years. I concede that this is, not to put too fine a point on it, more a cock-up than a conspiracy. I do not agree that it is necessarily an issue of whether a police authority is in a predominantly Conservative or a predominantly Labour area. However, Ministers are not listening. Despite visits to Peterborough and visits by delegations consisting of senior police authority members and the chief constable, nothing has been done. Indeed, we are going backwards.
As I made clear in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), these funding decisions are based on completely flawed population estimates, and Ministers have failed to act to correct them. On 27 November 2007, in evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the then immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne), said that funding to 2010 would continue to be based on 2004 sub-national population data
“simply because that is the best available data.”
That is not the basis on which to make these funding decisions, because the methodology and the data are flawed.
As was rightly pointed out by the chief constable of Cambridgeshire, Julie Spence, in evidence to the Select Committee:
“There is nothing within government to be able to respond to the rapid changes that have happened…The funding formulas are not rapid and flexible enough to deal with change.”
Similar views were expressed by the Local Government Association in its November 2007 report “Estimating the scale and impacts of immigration at the local level”, and in a report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs in the 2007-08 Session entitled “The Economic Impact of Immigration”.
According to the recent Migration Impacts Forum report, the tragic murder of a young Polish man in Peterborough in September last year
“impacted heavily on constabulary resources and was made even more complex because of the language and translation issues involved.”
It gives one simple example, which is that
“over 40 Polish citizens had to be interviewed and statements taken”.
The House can imagine how resource-intensive that process was for a force that is already under-provisioned in terms of front-line police officers.
Even without those specific migration factors, Cambridgeshire will be struggling to deliver the police service that local people deserve and need. In 2007, the Association of Police Authorities estimated that the current comprehensive spending review funding regime would result in a funding shortfall across the country of at least £831 million. In a report prepared for the police authority 18 months ago, the management consultants KPMG concluded on the basis of the Cambridgeshire constabulary’s current work load that the county required at least an extra 100 officers. Let me put in context how badly underfunded my local constabulary is: just to achieve the average funding and provision of front-line officers for England and Wales, Cambridgeshire would need at least 600 more police officers, at a significant revenue cost.
Despite warm words from the Minister, who is an agreeable chap—I think we can all agree on that—and several deputations from the police authority and the chief constable, we are no further forward this year. The Government continue to undercount population numbers and to underfund core police service activity. Cambridgeshire is losing more than £2 million per annum, which has a major year-on-year cumulative effect, as a result of the funding floors. The force has the fourth lowest number of police staff per head of population in England and Wales. The 2010-11 pay deals, amounting to about 2.5 per cent., mean that it will experience a real-terms cash decrease.
I have not even discussed Cambridgeshire’s capital programme. The £1.5 million to be allocated to the force in the next financial year will be only just enough to cover the vehicle replacement programme; it will not cover other key projects, such as the rebuilding of police stations in Parkside, Cambridge and Huntingdon. We are not demanding extra funds for fashionable budget headings such as protective services and counter-terrorism, or the Olympics. Thank goodness, we do not have a major problem with knife crime, gangs and guns; we do, however, require fairness and equity.
For too long, Cambridgeshire’s pleas have been ignored and the police authority short-changed, and our dedicated and professional police officers on the front line protecting us have been forced to do much more for much less. This situation is unfair, intolerable, iniquitous and ultimately unsustainable. It cannot go on. My constituents deserve better, as do those of other Cambridgeshire Members. I hope the Minister is listening, and that, for once, we have action and not just words.
This has been an interesting and informed debate. Several Members passionately expressed their feelings about policing issues, especially the current grant settlement. In common with many contributors, I would first like to record my congratulations and praise for the work police officers do not only in my constituency, but across the country. It is always humbling to go out with the police and see the work they do at the sharp end, often in difficult circumstances. It is important to recognise that in the context of this debate, which, by necessity, focuses on funding streams rather than the practical work the police do throughout the country in protecting us and providing safety to the communities we represent.
This debate has, of course, focused heavily on the grant settlement. It is important to recognise the changing funding arrangements and the shift in burden from direct central Government grant to local authority precept. In 1997, direct grant represented 85 per cent. of forces’ revenue, but in 2006-07 the figure had fallen to 60 per cent. Therefore, an increasing proportion of the funds going to our police forces is coming from council tax payers in our areas rather than from direct grant. It is important to recognise the amount of funding that is coming directly from council tax payers, rather than from central Government.
There have been some good and important contributions to the debate, and I wish to place on record my congratulations to the Home Affairs Committee on the work it undertakes in putting a number of important issues into the public domain, and thereby informing the general discussion and ensuring that relevant matters are given the attention they deserve. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) raised some important issues—for instance, alcohol-related crime, which he and I have debated on several previous occasions. I certainly recognise the link between alcohol and violent crime and the pressures our police forces have to withstand, and the difficulties and challenges they face, in the early hours of the morning. In that context, there is an issue to do with pricing, and the right hon. Gentleman covered it well in his contribution.
In terms of funding arrangements and the efficient use of resources, Government, and particularly Home Office, IT projects are of relevance. The right hon. Member for Leicester, East made an important point about the funding and status of the police portal and the dispute around the contract associated with that. I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some further light on those issues when he responds to our debate. Other IT projects also deserve further scrutiny, such as the Pentip computer system intended to register penalty notices for disorder and other policing matters, which is over budget and running late. It is important that we get good value for money and that procurement issues are dealt with appropriately.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) made important points on procurement and ensuring that we get good value for money and have efficiencies. I think that is recognised in all parts of the House, as is the importance of forces being able to share in certain aspects of procurement.
My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) rightly highlighted the challenges facing many rural police forces, and in particular how population flows caused by tourism can have a big impact on the ability to police. The problems he raised to do with tourism and swells in population are shared by a number of police forces.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made the important point that we should recognise the work of those officers who ensure safety in our community, and he commented that his area of Dyfed-Powys had been made a safer place. He also said that we must look to the future, and at the review of the funding formula, to which the Minister alluded in his opening remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) highlighted the issue of officer retention and some of the challenges in terms of the relationships between police forces, particularly in the areas surrounding London. We look forward with interest to the continuing discussions of the Police Negotiating Board on south-east allowances, which are of direct relevance to a number of Members who have made contributions; the Minister mentioned this.
My hon. Friend also made some important points about counter-terrorism and the Olympics budget. We look forward to receiving further details from the Minister on that budget. Some scrutiny needs to be applied, and we need to have a better understanding of the Government’s position and of the costs and impact of all that on police forces throughout the country and their budgets.
My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) is passionate about the issues facing his Cambridgeshire area. His comments reflect those of the chief constable, Julie Spence, on the difficulties and challenges in respect of movements of population and whether the funding formula adequately takes them into account, particularly as it is based on information that dates back to 2004.
Clearly, this discussion is part of a wider debate on the comprehensive spending review, and it is interesting to note that when the first police funding grant was settled, Tim Brain, chief constable of Gloucestershire police and the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on finance, made the following prescient point:
“We don’t all start on a level playing field, and some, possibly many, forces will have to continue to introduce planned cuts at a local level. Furthermore, the grant settlement will help maintain most aspects of ‘business as usual’ but is likely to restrict key development.”
His comments then are equally relevant now in terms of some of the pressures and challenges police forces have to address and the fact that those challenges are changing and growing. We have heard about the pressures in relation to the growth of different communities and new communities arising, one of which is translation costs; according to Freedom of Information Act information, in the last financial year the cost to police forces throughout the country is about £25 million. That cost has risen significantly in the past five years, probably by about two thirds. It is also worth remembering that additional policing pressures arise from this.
It would be useful to hear from the Minister about the context and framework of the review of the police funding formula. What will the parameters of that review be, and to what extent will it take into account changes in population and the practical impact that has on police forces and how they manage their budgets? I hope he will be able to give more details when he responds to the debate, and to confirm the timing of the review, whether he expects to publish interim findings, and how this will interrelate with the next comprehensive spending round. That will be important in informing the debate, and in explaining how things will link with the funding arrangements for the police as we move towards the next comprehensive spending review.
A number of different factors are putting increasing pressures on the police. As, sadly, we all know, there is a downturn in the economy, with an accompanying risk of an increase in volume acquisitive crime. The Home Office appears to have recognised and accepted that this will lead to an increase in crime, although we are getting some mixed messages from the Home Secretary about whether she agrees with that perspective. I am thinking of the leaked memo that indicated that the Home Office was expecting a rise. Will the Minister confirm whether he agrees with the memorandum or with the view of the Home Secretary that there might not be such a rise? There are also other pressures—not simply direct burglaries and frauds, which have been focused on, but emerging threats. He knows the interest that I take in the growth in cybercrime and internet crime—the different types of emerging problems that are complex and technical and for which there have been few prosecutions under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. We need to address the reliance on forensics and how dealing with that type of criminality will need to feed into and inform future funding arrangements because of the additional pressures that it will place on policing; we need to respond to the changing nature of the threats that emerge.
The Flanagan review made an important point about the pressures on policing; it said that the current level of policing numbers was unsustainable. Notwithstanding the fact that police strength numbers remained flat, according to the last figures, will the Minister say whether he agrees with Sir Ronnie’s view that police force numbers are unsustainable? If he does, will he say what assessment he is making of any reductions that might apply and how that fits into the context of the current settlement and, indeed, future ones?
This important debate has given many hon. Members the opportunity to highlight the financing challenges and problems that may be faced in ensuring greater safety in their communities. We look forward to hearing further details on the funding formula and on how the Minister intends to review and reform it to ensure that it provides for, and reflects the needs of, our communities and is responsive to changes in threat, in population and in need. We look forward to continuing the debate in the months ahead.
I thank all hon. Members who contributed to this debate for the informed and interesting way in which they made their points. I shall try to answer the questions that have been raised and deal specifically with some of the points.
I agree very much with the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) about the fact that all of us should start these debates, as we have done, by paying tribute to police forces across the country for their work and the fact that they often put themselves in very dangerous situations to ensure public safety as far as they are able.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) again sought confirmation about capping. He will know that Cheshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire were capped in advance for 2009-10, limiting their council tax increases to 3 per cent. That situation stays the same. They had 21 days from 26 November in which to appeal and none did so—that was the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) made; the approach we took significantly helped in that regard.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds asked what capital moneys had been brought forward. Capital moneys for the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Police Improvement Agency have been brought forward, and they have been spent on helping with the current economic climate. He asked whether police authorities can apply for the migration moneys that I mentioned. Yes, they can. I want to spend a little time on this issue. We expect the Office for National Statistics to produce estimates of short-term inward migration by this summer, and we want to improve the population data informing the police funding formula debate. The review of the formula gives us an opportunity to try to address some of the issues raised by hon. Members from across the House. That review will enable us from the next comprehensive spending review round—from 2011-12—to move forward on that basis. That is where our intention lies. Meetings have started to be held on what changes we should be reflecting upon, and this afternoon’s debate will help with that debate. All the issues such as how we can better estimate population and the impact of migration will be included in our discussions, as will other matter that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) said that no change had been forthcoming. I know he could not help not being here earlier in the debate, but had he been here he would have heard that from April the migration impact fund will be available in Government offices for the regions; police forces, as well as other local service providers, will be able to apply for money to help them deal with some of the very issues that he raised with regard to Cambridgeshire. Cambridgeshire police authority will be able to go to the Government office for its region to put a case for receiving that money, as will authorities in other parts of the country.
My point was that the Migration Impacts Forum was established 18 months ago, but the information available to Ministers on the flawed methodology used by the ONS and others was available before that. These are current problems from which my local force is suffering, and it was incumbent on Ministers to have acted much more quickly.
It is also incumbent on Ministers to act responsibly. What I have said to the hon. Gentleman is that from April his local police force will be able to apply to the Government office for his region for funding. If we unpick the funding formula in the middle of a CSR round, although his force may get an extra few million, countless other Conservative Back Benchers and Members from all parts of the House will say that the Government have broken their word on what they said they were going to do, which was to provide stable funding for the police service. That is why the Home Office has received limited representation about this funding round and why we have heard more concern about what happens in the next funding round—that is what the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) was arguing about and it is what most other Members in this debate have discussed. They recognise that if a Government unpick a settlement in the middle of it, that causes instability and chaos. That is why we have not unpicked this one, and why we are not going to do so.
I want to carry on—I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind.
The point of today’s debate is that it allows us to inform that funding formula. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East raised the issue of new technology, and we agree with him on it. He, like the hon. Member for Hornchurch, raised a specific point, and I should like to read out a reply so that I put it accurately. The police portal was a website providing a national communications channel. The main service was to enable the reporting of crime and hate crime online. Good use was made of it, but running costs increased as a result of technical problems. The Association of Chief Police Officers took the view that there was not enough demand to justify the increasing costs, so the scheme was discontinued. QinetiQ’s contract was terminated by the NPIA in July 2007. QinetiQ then sued the NPIA and it countersued. These legal matters were resolved in November 2008 in a non-disclosed agreement. Some forces do have online facilities on their website to allow the reporting of crime.
To provide the detail that my right hon. Friend requires, over and above the legal opinion that I have just given, I might need to write to him. I will put a copy of that letter in the Library.
The issue of alcohol was also raised by several hon. Members. We take the need to address that issue seriously and we are taking a range of enforcement measures. The Policing and Crime Bill will allow the Government to establish a mandatory code for the off-trade and for pubs and supermarkets. That will help to tackle the irresponsible promotions and pricing that lead to some of the issues that have been raised by hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) mentioned Dyfed-Powys force and the important role of volunteers. We all agree that volunteers are particularly important and we need to ensure that we encourage specials and other volunteers.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire raised the issue of the future of the rural policing grant. As we have discussed, that will form part of the review.
I confirm again to the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) that the south-east allowances will form part of the discussions with the Police Negotiating Board. I hope that the issue will be resolved as quickly as possible to address the problem of the transfer of officers from neighbouring forces to the Metropolitan police.
The settlement before us represents a further significant increase in resources for the police services of England and Wales. The latest figures show not a decrease in police numbers, but an increase. In all forces since 1997, there have been significant increases in police officer numbers, and in staff numbers, as well as the introduction of PCSOs. At the same time, we have seen big reductions in crime. That is a record to be proud of and, notwithstanding the difficult economic times, this funding settlement will allow our police services to continue that fine record.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) for 2009–10 (House of Commons Paper No. 148), which was laid before this House on 21 January, be approved.
Local Government Finance
For the convenience of the House, we will deal with motions 4 and 5 together for the purposes of debate. We will, of course, put the questions separately at the conclusion of the allocated time.
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2009-10 (House of Commons Paper No. 150), which was laid before this House on 21 January, be approved.
We are debating the 2009-10 settlement for local government, the second year of the first ever three-year funding deal for councils. Through the Government’s policy on three-year settlements, I have made certain commitments to local government. First, every council in every region will get an increase in its core grant in each of the three years. Secondly, total Government funding for councils in England rose by 4 per cent. this year, will rise by 4.2 per cent. next year and is set to increase by 4.4 per cent. in 2010-11. Thirdly, councils will have more freedom to take local spending decisions. By 2010-11, £5.7 billion a year will have been mainstreamed into funding with no Government funding strings attached. Fourthly, councils will have more certainty about other funding, so in addition to the core grant, I am also confirming today the allocation to councils of 70 other grants from eight different Departments. Most importantly, I have given the commitment not to change my proposals on formula grant distribution, except in entirely exceptional circumstances.
Local councils therefore know what they will get, and they can plan and manage ahead. The stability that that commitment brings is doubly important in dealing with the economic downturn, which I will come to in a few minutes.
The Minister mentioned exceptional circumstances. Is he aware that in the royal borough of Kingston, as in many other London boroughs, there was a massive and unexpected increase in demand for primary school reception year places in September 2008, which is expected to be repeated in September 2009 and beyond? The capital allocations, and the revenue to support those places, are simply not available. Will he talk to colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and argue that this is an exceptional case, and that Kingston and other London boroughs need the support of the Government?
In a moment, I shall explain the conclusions that I have come to on whether there are exceptional circumstances in relation to the three-year settlement. I shall also deal with how I expect councils to show—and how they are showing—that they can deal with the downturn. I am aware of such representations, not least from London councils, representatives of which I met face to face. Their first point, when I asked them about the apparent impact of the economic downturn on their councils, was that an increasing number of students were coming out of private school education and looking for places in the state school system. That was their top priority.
The Minister suggested that he was going to answer in terms of the decisions that he has made. We already know that the decisions that he has made will not help the situation. My colleagues and I from all parties around the capital are asking the Government to consider the case of primary school places in London. The change happened before the Government did all the work in preparation for the announcement. Changes within the settlement and the comprehensive spending review need to be made in year. Otherwise, there will be severe problems for many children and families across the capital.
One of the principal strengths of a three-year settlement, as well as the additional flexibilities that allow local authorities to identify the priorities or pressures in their area, is that the authorities are given the capacity to manage through that period. For that reason, I have not regarded the representations that I have received on the demand for school places as exceptional circumstances warranting an unpicking of the three-year settlement and undoing the stability and certainty that is at its heart.
One of the other unfortunate by-products of the current economic downturn is the fact that local authorities such as mine, Chelmsford borough council, are being adversely affected as the fall in interest rates has changed the income that they receive from savings. What advice does the Minister have for local authorities affected in that way? Clearly, the three-year settlement would not have taken that consideration into account.
That is one of the points that have been put to me, not least by the Local Government Association, as the hon. Gentleman might expect. The impacts and pressures of the economic downturn do not all go one way. Some costs are down considerably, reserves are up and with inflation set to be lower next year, the quantum of Government grant to local government is likely to go further. There are pressures on local councils, just as there are on central Government, but they do not all go one way. Councils have the capacity to manage their way through this period, not least because they now have a three-year settlement with extra flexibility as part of the funding. They know what they are getting and are able to plan ahead and make some of the difficult decisions that they face.
In my statement to the House on 26 November, I launched the period of statutory consultation on the local government settlement for next year. That ended on 7 January, and we received 109 written representations from local authorities, local authority groupings and hon. Members. That is the smallest number of representations on the local government finance settlement that anyone can remember. It underlines the seriousness with which local government takes our commitment to a stable three-year settlement and, I think, the seriousness with which local government takes its responsibility to manage within that settlement.
I am sorry that I missed the Minister’s first words, but I rushed here as soon as I saw that he had started to speak. I think that there might not have been many representations because, with a fixed three-year settlement, local councils might have thought that they would not see much change. Does he accept the case put by inner- London boroughs in the representations that he has received for a better allocation of money for social services and the care of vulnerable younger people? The figure that I have been given—he can correct me if I am wrong—is that last year £370 million was transferred out of London to the rest of the country. While some local authorities now have 99 per cent. of their funding met, boroughs like mine get only two thirds of what they need to look after vulnerable young people.
No, I do not agree. This change in the funding formula is based on some detailed work that we published and consulted on several years ago, which formed the basis of the decisions that I took at the beginning of this three-year settlement. Although the same arguments have been made to me by others, I have seen no evidence that the formula is not the best available, or to suggest that the shift in funding—which some people say is long overdue—is not appropriate for this year and next year.