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Police Funding (Greater Manchester)

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2010

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Weir. I wish to pass on my thanks to Mr Speaker for ensuring that this debate can take place today. I would also like to put on the record my thanks and appreciation to all the police officers and staff at the Greater Manchester police, who do an absolutely fantastic job—a very difficult job in very difficult circumstances. I wish to put on the record my tribute to their work in making my constituency a safer place.

I would also, very briefly, like to congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Given everything that is facing the public services as we progress with the new coalition Government, I am sure that he will do his best, in very tight circumstances, for the police service in Great Britain.

It is, however, a concern that one of the first acts of the new Conservative-Liberal Government has been to introduce a cut of £125 million in police revenue, with a further £10 million from capital funding and £10 million from the counter-terrorism budget. For Greater Manchester police in my region, that announcement will mean a cut of just less than £7 million. That represents a reduction in grant of approximately 2% of total budget. Only Greater London, at £30.4 million, and the west midlands, at £7.5 million, will be harder hit.

Clearly, the Greater Manchester region will be hit harder than most. That has led to uncertainty, as the police had already set out their budgets for the coming financial year. That is why the reduction is so damaging to the efforts being made to tackle crime in my constituency and in other constituencies across Greater Manchester. Police authorities will now have to cut services that they have not planned to cut and there is the likely possibility that that will impact on front-line services.

Does my hon. Friend agree that local councillors in Manchester, of whom I am still one, have worked very hard in recent years, on a cross-party basis, to deliver precept rises that allow Greater Manchester police to have the resources to do its job, and that the least we could expect from the Conservative-led Government is a similar level of commitment at a national level?

This is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome my hon. Friend to the House. He will be a stalwart campaigner for his constituents, who are on the other side of the River Tame from my constituency. He is absolutely right. Although the police authority has had to make some difficult decisions about the police precept, a lot of hard work went into ensuring that the funding package for this financial year was robust and matched the needs of policing in Greater Manchester.

Of course, the previous settlement was made by the Labour Government before the general election. As a result, police authorities set their local budgets on the basis of that settlement and will now have to make difficult choices to bring their budgets into line with the new Government’s amended settlement. Greater Manchester police authority has already admitted that tough decisions will have to be made. There is a concern in my constituency about how that will affect policing in Greater Manchester.

Throughout the years of the Labour Government, we saw a real fall in the number of crimes that were committed. Overall, crime fell by 36%. That was, in part, thanks to the record investment in levels of policing. In 1997, Greater Manchester police employed fewer than 7,000 police officers. According to the most recent figures, from September 2009, there are now 8,148 police officers.

According to the House of Commons Library, in my constituency we now have 917 full-time equivalent police officers, as well as—a great invention of the last Labour Government—police community support officers. Across the same area, the boroughs of Tameside and Stockport, we now have 99 PCSOs committed to being a uniformed presence on the streets.

Like my hon. Friend, I would like to pay tribute, particularly to Inspector Kevin Mulligan and the Greater Manchester police force in Salford, who have done a great job, with the help of PCSOs, in bringing down crime—particularly antisocial behaviour, which was of great concern to my constituents. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that these budget cuts will really affect PCSOs and, in our case, the neighbourhood team work that can get crime and antisocial behaviour down?

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is crucial not to diminish the role of the PCSOs and to support the neighbourhood policing teams. Most people will recognise that neighbourhood policing teams, based on every ward in our boroughs, are one of the most successful recent changes to policing in areas such as Greater Manchester. That localism has made a big change to how the police are viewed by the general public, and it is important that we should maintain it.

Backed by that high level of investment, there have been some impressive results. In the borough of Tameside, during the period from 2001-02 to 2009-10, crime was reduced by a fifth. Crimes such as burglary fell significantly. Figures from the House of Commons Library show that the number of burglaries in Tameside fell from 6,084 in 2002-03 to 3,926 in 2008-09. There was a similar trend in Stockport: vehicle crime fell from more than 7,000 in 2002-03 to 3,746 in 2008-09. That shows that proper investment has an effect on crime. In Tameside, we know that effective crime-fighting has improved the quality of life for residents, both collectively and individually. That is why the cut of just under £7 million is of real concern.

Crime itself is not always the main threat to people’s sense of well-being: sometimes the fear of crime is just as, if not more, important, although it can be hard to quantify. Neighbourhood policing and bobbies on the beat have been a real reassurance to our constituents.

I am concerned about how many more efficiency savings there are in the police service in Greater Manchester. It has been streamlined over the past decade and it is not clear that there is now much spare capacity; it is a very lean organisation. In short, all the cuts will inevitably impact on front-line services, even if that is not the Minister’s intention.

Any plans to cut back office staff might not be as simple as they first sound. Some back-office positions are filled by officers who have been injured in the line of duty. If there are no roles for them, they might have to go on sick leave, which will not help to reduce costs. A key to freeing up police officers has been to have the necessary bureaucracy carried out by civilians in a back-office role, so that officers can spend more time on the beat, which is something my constituents will want to be continued and maintained.

We also have to bear in mind that a number of cuts have already been announced and reconfirmed in today’s Budget. The local crime and disorder reduction partnerships in Tameside and Stockport, and no doubt across the whole of Greater Manchester—partnerships involving various local agencies including the local council, housing associations and the NHS—have made a significant impact on reducing crime in my constituency. They have helped to reduce the rate of reoffending, especially in respect of key crimes such as burglary, car crime and antisocial behaviour.

Reducing the funding available to crime and disorder reduction partnerships will put all that good work in jeopardy. The ability to respond to complex issues in a multi-agency setting, which ensures a range of expertise, could no longer be relied on if agencies were stripped back even further. Agencies would go back to being able only to fire-fight issues, rather than take the current proactive approach to local concerns.

I give one example. In Tameside, alley-gates have had a huge impact in dealing with crime and making people feel safer. Since 2005, more than 1,300 households have benefited from the initiative. In a recent survey by Tameside council, 96% of people said that they had felt safer since the gates went up, and 42% felt that they had had an impact on antisocial behaviour. However, with local authority cuts on the way, there will be less money available for such crime prevention initiatives; that, along with further cuts in the police budgets, will have a knock-on effect.

I turn to another matter that I wish to highlight. There is a sense of irony in my constituency about the local Liberal Democrats in Stockport. I appreciate that the Minister may not have the authority to speak for his coalition partners on this matter, but we shall see. We have found out all too soon that the Liberal Democrats say one thing in opposition and quite another when in government.

In February, the Stockport Liberal Democrats put forward a council motion condemning the previous Labour Government and the borough’s two Labour Members of Parliament—myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey)—for the 3% increase in the local police grant settlement, claiming that it would impact on front-line policing in Greater Manchester. How strange that they should have said nothing when the Tory-Liberal Government ordered the cuts. It is the height of hypocrisy, especially as it will mean a less effective police force in my constituency, in Tameside and Stockport and across Greater Manchester.

What objections have the local Liberal Democrats raised? The silence is deafening. [Interruption.] It so happens that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) has just popped his head round the door; he has now left. Perhaps they are so mesmerised by their newly acquired Government offices that they are suffering from some form of political amnesia. They are certainly not putting the people of Stockport and Greater Manchester first. That is not surprising, given that every Liberal Democrat Member of the House today was elected on a pledge not to support the £6 billion cuts programme, although they now seem content to its being driven through at high speed. I hope that they recover their principles soon, and think once more about these damaging cuts to our police service.

I accept that people are generally suspicious of politicians using statistics, but it is worth repeating the point that when Labour was in government, we in Greater Manchester saw recorded crime fall by 36%, including antisocial behaviour and other more serious offences. We need to ask serious questions about the Government’s commitment to reducing crime and protecting British people.

Has the Minister given any thought to the effect that the cuts will have on local policing? What will be the effect on the fear of crime if the police are less visible in the community? In light of the cuts to local government announced in the Budget today, what will be the effect on the funding of crime and disorder reduction partnerships? A multi-agency approach has made a real contribution to cutting crime and the fear of crime.

The counter-terrorism budget, too, has been cut—by £10 million. Although no one wants to raise public concerns about terrorism, has any assessment been made of how the cut will impact on our effectiveness in protecting the public from terrorism? That question is particularly appropriate for Greater Manchester, as its police take the lead on such issues for the whole of the north-west.

We also need to consider grants for specific posts, such as drug-testing officers or school-based police officers. They are not funded out of the main police grant, but specific grants are given for individual posts. Given the budget tightening, those important and worthwhile posts could well be under threat too, putting more pressure on the remaining posts. What assessment has been made of the combined impact of the grant reductions made by the Minister’s Department and the council tax freeze, which will effectively eliminate Greater Manchester police authority’s ability to raise funds locally to support policing?

From the discussions that I have had with the local police and other agencies, I know that there is a real sense of concern about this issue, not just for Greater Manchester police, but police forces across the country. We need to have a more considered approach that takes into account what local communities want and need, particularly in relation to something as important as policing and community safety. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) on securing the debate on behalf of his constituents, and I thank him for his kind words about my appointment to the job. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of police funding.

I would like to say something about my recent announcement on the reductions in police funding for 2010-11 before turning to the specifics of Greater Manchester. My announcement on 27 May that we intend to reduce funding for the police service of England and Wales by £135 million may have been expected. Announcing reductions of any sort is not pleasant or easy, particularly when they relate to an important service such as the police service. However, given the size of the overall budget deficit, the police will need to make a fair share of the savings required.

As I said in my written ministerial statement, the Government’s priority is to cut the budget deficit and get our economy moving in the right direction. The proposed reductions to police funding are, in fact, spread equally across all forces and no one force will have its funding reduced by more than another—the hon. Gentleman needs to understand that point. That will mean that police forces have less money than they were expecting this year, but forces have already identified savings of £100 million for this year on areas such as better procurement and IT spending. I am quite confident that additional savings can be achieved by driving out wasteful spending, reducing bureaucracy and increasing efficiency in key functions, while leaving the front line of policing strong and secure.

In total, the Home Office has been asked to cut £367 million this year as a contribution towards the £6 billion of savings required. To minimise the impact on the police service, the Home Office has decided to cut a greater-than-proportionate share of its own central budget. In short, the Government intend to reduce police funding by a total of £135 million this year, which will be achieved by a proposed £115 million reduction in rule 2 grant, a £10 million reduction in capital grant and a £10 million reduction in counter-terrorism-specific grants. I should point out that even after those reductions, Government funding to the police service will remain at £9.6 billion in 2010-11, which is still £124 million more than last year.

Assuming that, following the consultation process, the House approves the proposed reductions laid before it on 10 June—there will be further opportunity for debate for hon. Members—Greater Manchester will receive £465.5 million in general grants and around a further £49.4 million in specific grants and capital provision. Again, that will still mean an increase of more than £6.6 million since 2009-10. In fact, between 2005-06 and 2009-10, central Government funding to Greater Manchester increased by £77.5 million, or 15% in real terms.

As I said, the Government have made it clear that tackling the deficit is the most urgent issue facing the country today, and the police need to contribute towards the overall reduction. That applies to every force. The package was the first step but, as I said, the reduction was shared across the service, so that each force will face a cut of 1.46% of its core funding. I think the hon. Gentleman suggested that the cut was 2%, but I should point out that that is incorrect. In fact, the reduction is 1% of the total estimated revenue spending by the force in 2009-10. The reduction itself is £7 million, and we have to see that in the context of total estimated revenue spending by the force of £681 million, £473.8 million of which comes from central Government. In fact, there will be an increase in the amount of central Government grant of 1.4% compared with last year.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that Greater Manchester was being hit harder than most areas, but in fact every force will see proportionately the same reduction, so it is not true to say that. Of course, if he uses a cash figure, it will be different; the Greater Manchester police force is a big force, and it will experience a bigger reduction in cash terms. But proportionately, it has been hit no harder than any other police force.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I suppose that I should also be grateful for the increase that he has managed to magic out of his speech. Of course, that increase is less than the Labour Government gave to Greater Manchester police when they set their budget earlier this year; we are not grateful for a few crumbs. Will he accept that Greater Manchester police have regional responsibilities, and that their resources are often used by other police forces, particularly those in the north-west of England? Sometimes we help out across the Pennines and across the whole of the north of England, too. The impact on forces such as Greater Manchester, which take the lead on issues such as counter-terrorism, is therefore greater than on other forces.

Of course, separate funding is made available for counter-terrorism responsibilities in the region, and all those responsibilities on forces are taken into account. I also accept that we are talking about an in-year reduction. The Government are not making any secret of the fact that, in order to pay down the deficit, we needed to find £6 billion-worth of savings. It is necessary for the Home Office and, in turn, the police, who account for well over half of Home Office spending—indeed, they account for half of all law and order spending—to find their fair share of savings.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that we have a sense of proportion on the issue; he used quite strong language when talking about the implications of the cuts. Actually, I do not believe that his view of the implications of the cuts is shared by policing professionals, or those who are responsible for administering the budgets. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I convened a meeting of chief constables; we invited them to come and talk to us about the challenge that they face. They are absolutely realistic about that challenge. The chief constable of Greater Manchester police was at that meeting, and I note that he has said, on the reduction in grant, that the force hopes to get officers on the streets by working more efficiently. I have also met the chairman of the Greater Manchester police authority on a number of occasions over the past few days to discuss wider issues relating to policing and, according to reports, he has insisted that the public would not see the effect of the cuts. He has said:

“Can I give an assurance to the people of Greater Manchester that we’re not looking at cuts in police or police staff? Currently the situation is difficult, we’ve had 10 very good years. Now the tough times are with us and we’re having to make those cutbacks—and considerable cutbacks they are.”

I believe that the chairman of the Greater Manchester police authority, who I understand is in the same party as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, is adopting a responsible attitude towards the savings that he has to make, and indeed a realistic attitude to the fiscal position that the last Government bequeathed to this Government.

It is, of course, for chief constables to use their expertise to decide what makes most sense for their force, but I am clear that the saving that we are discussing can be achieved by driving out wasteful spending on support functions, reducing bureaucracy and increasing efficiency in key functions, leaving the front line of policing strong and secure. I expect forces to be held to that, both by police authorities and by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary.

If police authorities find that their initial assessment is wrong and that they cannot make the required savings, will the Minister look sympathetically if they came forward with their proposals to ensure that officers remain on the beat? Visibility of officers on the beat is the bottom line, is it not?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is very important that police officers remain on the beat; that is what the public wants to see. It is the responsibility of chief constables, as the managers of their forces, to do everything possible to drive out costs, reduce bureaucracy, find the savings within their forces, and find ways to work more efficiently and share services so that they can protect the front line. That was very much the discussion that I had yesterday with chief constables. It is the collective ambition both of the Government and of the police leadership in this country that we should do that. There is also a great realism about the situation in which we find ourselves; to coin a phrase, there is no money. We were faced with having to make savings, and they are, I believe, of a relatively manageable size in the overall scheme of things.

The service is already working towards realising more than £500 million of savings by 2013 and 2014—that work was already in train—of which £100 million will be realised this year. Collaboration, including in the procurement of goods and services and with regard to information technology, will be important in improving both service delivery and value for money. It is vital that we drive down the costs of policing while maintaining the quality of the front-line policing services that the public receive.

Will the Minister move on to the issues that I raised about specific grants, separate from the police settlement, that impact on police posts, and to the knock-on impact of the tightening of local authority budgets, particularly given the council tax freeze?

On the council tax freeze, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that that is something that local authorities, including police authorities, can choose to do if they want to participate in the scheme. That is the important thing to understand about it. We hope that council tax payers will be protected in that manner. If the authorities agree to participate, the funding will be available to them to freeze council tax. That is important for local taxpayers who have had to find a great deal more money for council tax over the past few years. As for the specific matters relating to the grant, the easiest thing would be for me to write to him about those.

I do not deny that tough choices have had to be made in trying to reduce the deficit, which is unprecedented in this country’s history. The Home Office is playing its part by putting together a total package of cuts that reflects a considered view of where efficiencies can be made. We have sought first to trim as much as possible from the costs of running the Department and its non-departmental public bodies. I walked to the House today to contribute, in a modest manner, towards the share of savings that we as a Department have to make. None the less, we are confident that forces can make this relatively modest level of saving without a reduction in the world-class service that they provide to the public.

Will the Minister tell us whether any of the efficiency savings he just mentioned will involve offering early redundancy to some of our most experienced policemen who perform a role on the beat?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the House. His contributions are already proving effective. As for the choice of how savings are made, I should say that that is very much a matter for the operational responsibility of chief constables. The Government will not seek to interfere in that. We will seek to support, where we can, the decisions that have to be made, but there will be a fundamental difference between this Government’s approach and that of the previous one, in that we will not seek to direct chief constables so extensively. Chiefs must find the savings. It is for them to decide how to manage their work force and to provide the high-quality service that we and the public expect from them. I am confident that we can maintain front-line policing services, visibility and availability to the public.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).