[Relevant Document: Oral and written evidence taken by the Home Affairs Committee on 23 November on the Effect of the Comprehensive Spending Review on the Home Office, HC 626-i.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Home Office—
(1) resources, not exceeding £4,490,851,000, be authorised, on account, for use for current purposes as set out in HC 593,
(2) resources, not exceeding £225,450,000, be authorised, on account, for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a sum, not exceeding £4,601,101,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund, on account, and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Stephen Crabb.)
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for allowing us the opportunity to discuss this very important issue. As I did not have the chance to say this yesterday, I hope you had a very happy wedding anniversary.
On 20 October, the Chancellor announced the outcome of the 2010 spending review. The budget of the Home Office will fall by 25% in real terms from 2010-11, and within that the resource budget will fall by 23%, or £2.2 billion. Administration costs are due to fall by 33% and the capital budget by 49%. Taken as a whole, the Home Office has received a settlement with cuts more than twice the average of all Departments, which is 11%. Even ignoring the protected Departments of International Development and Health, the average cut for all other Departments is 17%, or 5% a year.
The comprehensive spending review document states that the Home Office settlement includes support for major policing reforms; a reduction in police resource funding by 14% in real terms by 2014-15; £1.8 billion of capital investment over the spending review period; spending for the delivery of a new national crime agency; and overall resource savings of about 23%. In real terms, central Government funding for the police is due to fall by 20% by 2014-15. As the House will know, part of the police’s funding comes from the police precept, and if the police authorities decide to increase the precept at the rate forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the overall level of police funding will decline by 14% by 2014-15. There is therefore widespread concern about the level of funding for the police and the Home Office over the next five years, and about the way in which it will be achieved.
What has been described as front-loading—the cuts happening in the first few years—has already caused concern. I understand that the Association of Police Authorities recently wrote to the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, whom I see on the Government Front Bench, to express that concern. It stated that
“a sensible, realistic approach is necessary to realise the savings objectives and avoid long-term damage to policing capability”
and that its members were
“deeply concerned that front-loading cuts will strip out the required financial flexibility police forces need to transform their working practices in order to make savings.”
The CSR document, about which I am sure we will hear more from the Minister, expresses the hope that the savings will be achieved through reducing bureaucracy, modernising pay and conditions for staff, introducing directly elected police and crime commissioners, abolishing the National Policing Improvement Agency and cutting counter-terrorism by about 10% in real terms. After the CSR was published, KPMG was reported as estimating that 18,000 police officers could be lost over a four-year period. The Police Federation was reported as estimating that the number would be 20,000. At Home Office questions on Monday, the Minister said:
“By cutting costs and scrapping bureaucracy, we will save both money and man hours, so I am confident that the spending review should not lead to any reduction in police officers visible and available on the streets.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 14.]
My right hon. Friend might like to know that this morning a number of my hon. Friends and I met the Minister to discuss the impact of the cuts on the West Midlands police force, which is 80% dependent on central Government funding. My right hon. Friend talks about the impact of the cuts on police numbers, but where police authorities are wholly or mainly dependent on central Government funding rather than the precept, the impact on local communities and police visibility will be that much worse.
The Home Affairs Committee has already heard from Chief Constable Sims of West Midlands police. It organised a seminar in Cannock Chase, which is not a million miles from my hon. Friend’s constituency, where those concerns were raised. The problem is that individual police forces are currently unable to tell us precisely what effect the cuts will have locally. We will have to wait for the publication of the settlement, which we anticipate in early December. When the Minister speaks, I am sure he will tell us precisely when the provisional police settlements will be announced and placed before the House. He is smiling, so perhaps he will announce the figures today and we can question him on them. I am sure that we will hear soon. Until we do, we will not know precisely what is happening.
Apart from the cuts, which will reduce the overall number of police, I understand that the CSR will mean a freeze on recruitment, the likely application of regulation A19, which will get rid of the more experienced officers, and a freeze on pay. Do they sound like the conditions for a highly motivated, well performing police force?
My hon. Friend asks almost a rhetorical question to which the answer must be, “No—people will not be motivated if those cuts take place,” but he is right to raise those concerns. That is why this debate is important. The Home Affairs Committee is of course aware of the deep concern in the west midlands, which is demonstrated by the number of west midlands MPs in the Chamber this afternoon.
A number of police forces have already issued statements on how the CSR will affect them. In a statement on 22 November, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police and the treasurer of the Greater Manchester Police Authority said:
“Final spending details are not expected until the end of November or early December but if the headline reductions in spending totals for the Police Service are ultimately reflected in GMP’s Formula Grant and Specific Grants, the Force and Police Authority will need to find savings of £134m over the four year period…Savings of £52m will need to be found in 2011/12.”
They estimate in their report that GMP will lose approximately 2,950 posts from a total of 12,000 over the four-year period, and BBC News has reported that 1,387 officers and 1,557 civilian posts could go in Greater Manchester.
Northumbria police also issued a statement, saying that the likely impact of the cuts would be the loss of 450 members of the civilian staff out of a total of 2,500. As my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) said, it looks as though 2,000 jobs will be lost in the West Midlands police force, including 1,050 police officers over the four-year period.
I should declare an interest, because my son is the chief executive of a police authority. Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the large numbers of police officers that will be lost? The Government imply that the loss of police officers will not be seen on the streets because people can somehow be pulled out of back offices, but many officers who are not on the streets investigate internet-related crime and child abuse, and undertake intelligence and scientific activities to prevent crime. They investigate a range of crime, the evidence for which is not to be found on the streets of our towns and cities.
My right hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable, as a former Police Minister. He will know that, depending on the police authority or station, 85 different functions could be performed every day in a police station by people from IT experts to those on the switchboard and reception. Of course, the temptation is to remove the back office, but if we do so, those in the front office—the visible police officers—will have to go there, because there will be nobody else to do that work. My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the problems caused by the suggested front-loaded reductions.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that West Midlands police assume in their planning that they will be unable to cope with cuts on the scale being forced on them by the Government without compulsorily retiring up to 400 of the longest-serving police officers under A19, and without a significant reduction in visible policing on the streets—fewer bobbies on the beat—in the west midlands generally and Birmingham in particular?
In response to an earlier question about the functions of police officers, it has to be said that many were affected by the previous Government’s ill thought out, badly drafted legislation. For example, the short-term, knee-jerk reaction dispersal orders simply moved one problem to a different street in the same area, which I often saw as a cabinet member for safety in Medway. Of course we must consider the various functions of police officers, but in the past 10 years the police have been tied up with functions they should never have been dealing with.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One thing I hope we can avoid at all costs is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that he mentioned. I would hate the police service to be subject to the same kind of reorganisation that we have had in the NHS in the past 20 years under the previous Government and the one before that.
I do not intend to go on for long, because many right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. The Home Affairs Committee hopes to assist the Government in this difficult process—we want to approach the proposals in a comradely and constructive way. I am glad to see so many members of the Committee in the Chamber. Our longest-serving and most distinguished member, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) is here, as are my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. The hon. Members for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) are members of the Committee, and sitting behind them on the Government Benches is a non-member, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) is also in the Chamber. She was a member of the Committee but was poached within weeks of her appointment by the Minister to become his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I am sure she is doing a great job.
The Committee has decided to undertake a trilogy of reports on three different aspects of the proposals to assist the Government. It is rather like “The Lord of the Rings”. We have just published our report on police and crime commissioners. As the Minister knows, members of the Committee have different views on the desirability of police and crime commissioners, but I hope he found our report helpful. It outlined a number of issues that we feel could be of value to the country.
We were very concerned that the figures for the cost of police and crime commissioners came out only after we had published our report. Indeed, the proposals came out on the very day that we published our report. Perhaps we can improve our co-ordination. I am not saying that we should be like “Strictly Come Dancing”, but if the Government and the Committee communicated a little bit better, we might be able to see the proposals before we commence our reports, which would make what we say more valuable.
The second report was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and we will look at the CSR in the light of the decisions that the Minister will make imminently about how much police forces will have as part of that second report on a reduction in police bureaucracy. There is common ground on both sides of the House about the need to reduce police bureaucracy. When my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was the Minister with responsibility for the police, he also said that he wanted to cut red tape. In the 23 years I have been a Member of Parliament, Ministers have always said that they want to cut red tape, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we need to ensure that it actually is reduced. That is why I hope that Jan Berry will have her term as the police bureaucracy tsar renewed, so that rather than just writing a one-off report she can continue to monitor the situation.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that savings would have to be made whichever party was in government? Will he give us a preliminary figure that he—personally or as the Chair of the Committee—would accept for the reduction in police budgets and numbers?
I am afraid that I cannot give him a personal figure. The Committee has not met and has not discussed this matter, nor have we conducted our report. Members of the Committee would be most concerned if I started speaking on behalf of the Committee on a matter that we had not considered. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a great interest in policing matters, and we will look at this very carefully. We will of course take evidence from the police and from others.
The final report that we intend to produce is on the new landscape of policing. The Government have not finally decided precisely where every bit of the old landscape will fit in the new landscape and we hope to help by setting out a landscape that will be accepted by the Government and the Opposition, so that whatever happens on 5 May 2015—or whenever the fixed-term election will be held—and if the Labour party is returned to power, we will not have another reorganisation, as we have had in the health service. Let us reach a consensus about how to proceed.
To that end, I was very pleased that the Minister was able to come to the summit meeting that was organised in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase a few weeks ago. I hope the Minister took away the message that there are stakeholders in the policing process who want to be engaged in what the Government are doing. We heard an excellent speech from my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary, and other Members of Parliament attended. We now have, in people such as Hugh Orde, Denis O’Connor, Paul Stephenson, Paul McKeever and others, some truly outstanding leaders in the profession, but we—Parliament and the Government—need to work together to ensure that we have a permanent landscape and to deal with the reductions in a particular way.
I am very concerned that there will be a reduction not only in the number of police officers but in the number of police community support officers. I was deeply concerned by the press statement issued by the chief constable of Lancashire police—which covers the area of Chorley, if my geography is correct, Mr Deputy Speaker—to the effect that every PCSO has been put on notice that they may lose their posts. They have been a terrific addition to policing.
I recently went to a residents meeting in London—I normally speak at residents meetings rather than attend them, but I was attending as a constituent of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr Offord). The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) was also there. We heard an excellent presentation from a local PCSO about the work that he does, which includes reducing the work load of police officers, enabling them to do their jobs effectively.
I did not know that and I am most grateful to the hon. Lady, who is another member of the Committee. However, that still does not address the reductions. If we are to proceed with a view to reaching a consensus—people have strongly held views—we must agree that there is of course a need for an overall reduction in the police budget. However, that hurts us as local MPs when it affects our local areas.
The public want to be able to pick up a phone to report a crime to a police officer and to ensure that that crime is dealt with as quickly as possible. If that is the bottom line, I hope that this debate can be conducted in a way that achieves that purpose. Let us put our party political differences to one side and concentrate on the fact that if a reduction in resources means fewer police officers—as I think it will—the Government will need to think again, and possibly ask the Treasury for additional resources so that we match the spending on the national health service and education. Law and order—the prevention and detection of crime—is a key issue for our constituents and we need to do everything that we can to ensure that it remains at the forefront of people’s concerns.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and this is the third time in seven months as a Member of Parliament that I have spoken on this issue. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), a fellow east midlands Member. I am sure he will agree that the east midlands forces have generally fared relatively badly in terms of funding in recent years. We all hope that, as the Minister finalises his funding settlement for the individual forces, he will look favourably on our local forces.
I commend the police for work they do in my constituency and across Derbyshire. I also commend their positive approach in responding to the anticipated level of cuts. They have not thrown their toys out of the pram and panicked that they will not be able to deliver effective policing across Derbyshire. Instead, they have looked at sensible steps that they can take. To be fair, they have been taking such steps in recent years in preparation for this situation, which they knew was likely to arise. Earlier this year, they reduced their control districts from four to three, moving the control district that covers my area from my constituency to Chesterfield, a move that has been achieved without any real damage to the quality of policing in the area.
We have to be realistic about police funding and accept that there is only so much that forces can do if they do not have the right money in the first place. Making straight-line cuts from the wrong starting position will not leave us in the right finishing position. Derbyshire police estimate that the impact of the comprehensive spending review will result in their needing to make straight-line savings of £6 million in the next financial year. However, they have lost roughly £5 million a year from the damping mechanism, which has cost them some £26 million in the last five years. It is a little much to expect a force that is already £5 million behind where it should have been—which is the equivalent of some 200 police officers compared to how many they would have had with the right amount of formula funding—to be able to absorb a straight-line cut in the same way as other forces that have received much more generous funding. Such a cut is bound to have a serious impact on local policing. It is a little over-ambitious and I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that he will look to reverse some of the negative impact of the damping mechanism, especially during the CSR period. By the end of that period, our police forces need to be in a fair funding situation; otherwise some of them will have received far less money than they should for an entire decade.
It is worth mentioning that forces can do things to save money that do not rely on cutting front-line officers. I have had meetings with people who have given me information about the waste that exists in police forces, and there is scope for tackling that. I have concerns about how a uniformed, qualified officer has to supervise specialist functions within the police force—for example, on forensics. Somebody in a managerial role ends up trying to supervise something that they are not really an expert in and to which they add little value. That is not a necessary part of the structure. I also question whether it is necessary to have quite so many different silos considering different areas of responsibility. It is a struggle to integrate them and bring together a joined-up seamless force. There must be huge scope for making savings but, fundamentally, there is only so much blood we can get out of a stone before we end up without an effective force.
We are in a bit of a strange position in terms of timing. The review of police conditions is ongoing, yet we want forces to start to make significant savings before they have had a chance to work through the impact of that. It would be unfortunate for forces to lose skilled and trained back-office staff or PCSOs because that is the only way they can make head-count reductions as forces cannot currently make uniformed police officers redundant. If we change the rule halfway through the process and decide that having uniformed officers performing back-office functions is not a great idea, we will find we will have already put ourselves in that position by having to proceed too quickly.
I hope that the timing of the spending reductions will be consistent with the pay and conditions review. It is hard for the public to understand why police officers enjoy an almost unique protection from redundancy whereas PCSOs and skilled back-office staff do not. I do not think the uniformed officers in the constabulary in my constituency will be desperately keen on changing that or on hearing such a change being advocated, but such an approach would give a level playing field for all employees of the police authority.
I do not wish to detain the House for much longer. However, when the Minister considers funding, I urge him one last time—this is the third time I have done so in the Chamber—to acknowledge that straight-line cuts on average will not deliver a fair outcome for forces across the east midlands, especially in Derbyshire. I hope that, over the CSR period, that will be taken into account and that we can move towards having the fairer funding that the formula states Derbyshire police ought to get.
It is my turn to follow the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills)—the sequence is normally the other way around—and I am very pleased to do so.
I recognise that the Minister has a tough job on his hands. Although I do not agree with a number of his proposals, I accept that his instincts are to try to make the police more efficient and to achieve a better level of performance with the resources he has. His difficulty is that the Home Office did rather badly out of the recent settlement. It is evident that, while other Cabinet Ministers went to bat for their Departments and secured good deals, the Home Secretary did not achieve quite as much. We must now live with the consequences of that. I genuinely and sincerely fear that crime will rise and that we will have terrible difficulties in some of our major cities in trying to combat the particular types of crime that we have been able to bear down on so successfully in recent years.
I do not oppose the Minister’s ambitions to achieve efficiencies and use more modern methods. In fact, I agree that change is needed. I support the better use of IT and better procurement, and I believe there is a clear argument for the police shift system to be changed, which would release more officers. We argue about the statistics—the Minister is very keen to gloat about the 11% figure—but the reality is that the police shift system is part of the problem, and I am in favour of changing that.
I welcome civilianisation where it frees police to do policing jobs. However, such an approach means there can be no benefit from the mass sacking of civilians. That is the conundrum. If civilianisation is a good process because it frees police officers to carry out policing functions, it logically follows that the mass sacking of civilians will mean that police officers are taken off front-line functions and sent back to doing civilian tasks. The Minister will have to address that problem. It is likely—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) made this point—that the initial response of police chiefs will be to sack civilian staff, which will impact on front-line policing. As they struggle to continue to make the budget match up, they will be forced to consider how to sack police officers. The easiest way to do that will be to apply regulation A19, which will mean that some of our more experienced and senior officers will have to go. We will have the double effect of losing civilian staff while officers are taken off the street to do their work and, simultaneously, losing senior and experienced officers.
As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), it seems that that will happen when there is also a freeze on recruitment and a freeze on pay. Those are not the conditions in which we can expect to get the best out of people, or motivate them to embrace change and improve performance; they are the conditions most likely to produce exactly the opposite effect.
I am particularly worried about the west midlands, because our gearing ratio means that we are highly dependent on grant. Earlier today, we met the Minister to discuss that very subject. If we experience a uniform cut in grant without any changes to the damping regime, we will lose out unfairly as a result of an exercise that means we must forgo money and resources, which will be transferred to other police areas. We will have to forgo those resources so that the council tax precept can be kept down elsewhere in the country.
That is a very good argument for what the Treasury want to achieve, and for what the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government might want to achieve. However, it is not an argument that someone who is worried about law and order and police resources should be too willing to embrace. Even at this stage, the Minister should consider whether he still has time to go back to his friends in the Treasury, explain the dilemma and see whether they can help him out of the hole that has been dug for him.
Project Paragon in the west midlands has shown that successful efficiency and reorganisation measures can be taken. However, such measures take time to deliver. Project Paragon cannot be turned on and off like a tap. If such things are to be done successfully, they need a long lead-in time. It takes a long time to deliver efficiencies. One of the by-products of such a change is that crime may rise during the reorganisation period, and there is some evidence in the west midlands to show that that is happening. I see that the Minister is nodding, because I think he also accepts that that is the case.
My concern about these very substantial front-loaded cuts is that such a reorganisation will occur far too fast in forces all over the country, at the very time when we are gearing up for major events, such as the Olympics. That is not something that we should be remotely complacent about. It screams out for re-examination, because the obvious dangers are right in front of us. We still have time to look into this issue, but if we delay too long, things will be upon us and our forces will be in chaos at the very time when demand for policing is at its highest.
I agree with the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. My view is simple: law and order always has to be our No. 1 priority. I genuinely feel that the Government have got the balance wrong. I am delighted that they have selected areas of other budgets that they feel should be protected, but there are times when I would like to hear a more convincing case for those decisions. However, I am disappointed that so little emphasis seems to be placed on law and order. Yesterday we detected the dangerous cocktail of police numbers dropping, crime rising and the courts prevented from sending offenders to prison when that is exactly where they should be, along with a promise of community punishments, albeit without the resources to make them work. That is a recipe for problems.
The hon. Gentleman makes an assertion about allowing offenders to get away, but between 2007 and 2010, under the previous Government, some 80,000 prisoners were let out of prison early. Surely that was completely unacceptable, and if the hon. Gentleman’s previous comment is right, he should accept that that was wrong.
Actually, the reality is that under the Labour Government there was a huge rise in prison numbers. It is true that some people were allowed out one month early, but the Justice Secretary proposed yesterday that there should be a threshold in order to reduce the numbers who go to prison in the first place, which means that the courts will be hampered. Indeed, he went on to say that his preference was that people should serve half the sentence in prison and half in the community. I should tell the hon. Gentleman that his constituents will find that much less acceptable than the situation when we were in power. If he does not believe me, I would be happy to go with him to his constituency and talk to them about it, because from what my constituents tell me, I am pretty certain that I am right about that.
The statement by the Secretary of State for Justice was quite clear: those who commit crime should be punished with the efficient force of the criminal justice system, and that includes going to prison. Can the hon. Gentleman show where in the Secretary of State’s statement it said that they should not be sent to prison?
I can show the hon. Gentleman where in the statement the Secretary of State gave the estimate for what he expected the reduction in the number of people going to prison to be. He stood at that Dispatch Box and said it, and everyone who was in the Chamber heard it—unless they have selective hearing.
I shall now return to what I was saying. There is a difficult balance. Perhaps the cuts are just too much, and the Home Office has got a particularly poor deal. I was surprised to discover, from the evidence that the permanent secretary to the Home Office gave to the Home Affairs Committee, that the Department has not carried out any research into the impact of the cuts on crime. That came from the very same permanent secretary who three years ago ordered a report on the potential impact of a recession on crime. It seems slightly strange that the man who feared then that a recession could lead to a rise in crime, and who said that we should investigate the potential outcomes, does not seem remotely troubled that a background of massive cuts and far too rapid reorganisation could have a similar effect. Perhaps it is just as well that he is planning to retire.
The point to emphasise is that the outcome of the research commissioned by the permanent secretary for Jacqui Smith when she was Home Secretary was that crime would rise during a recession, and that was assuming a level playing field for the number of police officers.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point. He is absolutely right.
I have one last point to make. As I said at the outset, I am in favour of the Minister’s plans to try to modernise the police force and get greater efficiency. I genuinely wish him well, and I think that some of the things that he talks about are things that we should try to do. I also think that they need a longer lead-in time. Time will tell who is right about that. However, there is one priority that I would not adopt at the moment, especially against the background of the cuts and the reorganisation and efficiency changes that we are about to experience. I would not totally change the management and accountability structure of the police at the same time. It seems ludicrous that we should be subjected to the idea of elected police and crime commissioners now. It might be a good idea—although I think that the Minister is wrong about that as well—but what on earth is the pressing need for something that will have a further destabilising effect on the police, at the very time when they have all those other issues to contend with? If the proposal is a good idea, surely there is plenty of time to discuss it, and to pilot it and see what the consequences—the benefits and downsides—are.
I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman is now my hon. Friend. I do not know whether that means that he shares some of my concerns about policing, or whether I have at least one ally on the Government Benches who will talk to the Minister about such issues. Actually, it was never the Labour Government’s proposal to have directly elected police commissioners, so no, I was never in favour of that.
This is not the time for that experiment. The Minister has enough on his plate. He needs to get on and get the best deal and the best arrangements that he can from his Treasury colleagues, in order to prevent some of our worst fears from being realised. He would be better off concentrating his energy on that. We can deal with the question of police commissioners another time. What is proposed sounds like a Government in too much of a hurry, with too few resources and too few of the right priorities. If the Minister gets this wrong, not only will he suffer personally in a ministerial capacity, but our constituents throughout the country will suffer as a consequence of reckless behaviour that damages the police.
Order. Just before I call anybody else, let me say that there have been quite a few complaints about the temperature in the Chamber. I can assure hon. Members that, as always in this Chamber, the temperature is now rising. The problem has been fixed.
It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), because it gives me an opportunity to express some concern about the fact that I listen to the same statements and participate in the same debates as him, yet I hear different things being said. If he looks carefully at what the Secretary of State for Justice said yesterday about prison sentences, he will see that he was clear that prison is entirely the right place for criminals to be. However, there are a limited number of cases, involving non-violent prisoners who have been given very short prison sentences, in which if it can be proved that a community sentence would more effectively address their reoffending behaviour, that is the appropriate course of action. That, the hon. Gentleman will find, is what the Secretary of State said yesterday, and there is broad agreement in all parts of the House that it is a sensible thing for him to have said.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity to hold this estimates day debate today. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) referred to “Strictly Come Dancing”, and said that he was a little worried that the timing of Government announcements was not in keeping with the publication of his Committee’s reports. One could perhaps make the same comment about the timing of this debate in relation to the police settlement. Clearly, Ann Widdecombe and Anton du Beke have had some involvement in the timing of this particular choreography, and I suspect that we will have to have a further debate once the police settlement has been announced.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Unfortunately, this was not in the hands of the Select Committee, although we did ask for the debate. May I also take this opportunity to acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s presence at the seminar in Cannock Chase, and the contribution that he made to those deliberations, for which we were very grateful?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I commend him and his Committee for their excellent work, and for the advice, recommendations and guidance that they provide for the Government.
The recent report produced by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, the Audit Commission and the Wales Audit Office on police spending, and the ways in which efficiencies can be achieved, is pertinent to the debate. It shows that police spending has grown significantly—by nearly half—since 1997-98. During that same period, the council tax contribution towards police expenditure has gone up by nearly 150%, so the increases have clearly had a big impact on council bills. It is also worth pointing out that only half of the efficiency savings achieved by the police in 2008-09 were used to reduce budget pressures. There is clearly a potential for more efficiency savings to be achieved, and for those savings to be put back into dealing with budget pressures.
All this has to take place while maintaining public confidence in the police. The report is helpful in pointing out that the forces that have achieved the highest cashable efficiencies do not have lower levels of public confidence. One would therefore hope to be able to square that circle, and the report supports that proposition. A priority for police forces must be to ensure that their threat, harm and risk assessments are finely tuned to value for money considerations and to the savings that they need to achieve, so that there is a clear linkage between them.
For me, the strongest point in the HMIC report was that forces are going to need strong leadership to achieve those transformational changes. If they are going to get beyond the typical 3% annual efficiency savings that have been made in recent years, that will require transformational change and significant leadership. The report goes on to state that this is perhaps not always recognised by chief constables. It states that less than a third of chief constables identify leadership skills as important in securing better value for money. I hope that the Association of Chief Police Officers will look into that, because transformational change will clearly need to involve collaboration with other organisations, other forces locally and other partners, and that is not easy to achieve. It will require significant leadership behind it. The report also flags up the fact that more than half of chief constables said that local police unit commanders lacked the financial skills to deliver the savings. Again, that illustrates the need for additional support to ensure that the necessary training is given, so that the significant savings that some forces have already achieved can be achieved by all of them.
Another important barrier highlighted by the report relates to the need to reassure the public that what matters is not the number of police officers, but what the police do. I have to confess that I am a recent convert in that regard. I am sure that there are Members here who received campaign literature from the Liberal Democrats that talked about additional police numbers. That is something that I cannot disguise, and I will not attempt to do so. However, recent reports have made it clear that we need to improve on the figure of only one in 10 officers being visibly available at any one time, and it is surely not impossible for forces to look into that in greater detail. The public are worried about the perception of police numbers and the availability of police on the streets, but that concern can be addressed if we can achieve a better turnout of officers, even if there is a requirement to reduce force numbers.
Others have talked about police overtime. I do not want to overemphasise what can be achieved by reducing overtime, because there are clearly occasions when police forces do not have control over that factor. Tuition fees demonstrations spring to mind. By allowing overtime to be used, local police forces are often in a position to provide additional tasking to hit a particular problem at a particular time. Having said that, it is clear that some forces are achieving significant savings by reorganising the way in which their overtime works, and one would expect other forces to be doing the same thing.
Members on both sides of the House will support the need for more sensitive and more effective procurement. The fact that 14 forces will have managed collectively to save £18 million by 2012-13 through the national forensics consortium leads me to hope that the other 29 forces that are not part of the consortium will actively consider participating in it, because of the potential collective saving of up to £40 million if they were to join it.
The hon. Gentleman was part of the Select Committee when we published the report “Policing in the 21st century”, in which we mentioned procurement. This is a no-brainer, is it not? Why do all those police forces still buy on their own, even if it is in collaboration with 14 others? Surely there should be more effective leadership, whether from the National Policing Improvement Agency or from the Home Office, to ensure that they buy in bulk.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. That is indeed a no-brainer, whether it involves vehicles or IT systems. We need to be careful, however, particularly when the “no-brainer” centralised procurement involves taking existing IT systems and moving them on to a common platform, as that can be quite a complex undertaking. Certainly, projects of that nature in the NHS have proved technically challenging, and such projects need to be dealt with very carefully.
The report identifies up to £1 billion of savings that could be derived without hitting the front line. I take the point made earlier, that it is wrong simply to say, “Front line, good; back office, bad,” particularly if the work going on in the back office involves officers engaged in detection and investigation. It is not possible to achieve a simple transfer. However, Members who have seen the HMIC report will know that there are currently 200 officers working in human resources departments. That might be a police role in some shape or form, but I find it difficult to imagine that all 200 of those officers working in HR are working on tasks that require a trained police officer. There is therefore scope for savings in those areas, and in others.
I have mentioned the fact that between the point at which a crime is reported and the final appearance in court, about 100 different processes take place. Some of those involve the police, and it is clearly a labour-intensive process. Anything that can be done to simplify it, while keeping all the usual safeguards in place, will, I am sure, help to improve efficiencies for the police, for the court system and beyond.
The report makes a number of recommendations; I shall highlight a couple of them before finishing. It underlines the need for police authorities to set savings targets for their forces that are more ambitious than those of previous years. I know that that will be a tough call for police authorities at the moment, and it is fair to say that they are not unanimously behind the coalition Government’s proposals for elected police and crime commissioners. I know that the police are all professional in their approach, however, and a number of them want to put their names forward for election as police and crime commissioners, so I am sure that they will want to demonstrate their commitment to achieving significant efficiency savings.
I have underlined the importance for the police of making sure that the threat, harm and risk assessment is closely linked with any financial or business planning, and I have also underlined the need, if these transformational changes are to be made, for some clear leadership from senior officers. The changes are not going to happen by themselves; they will need someone to drive them. The Government’s role should be to ensure flexibility to allow partnerships between forces and other partners to develop so that substantial savings can be achieved. If a carrot were provided by introducing a linkage between future grant allocations and the efficiency savings that forces achieve, I believe that that would help.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which I think makes a strong point. It has been put—no doubt by him, by me and by others—to the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, who is well aware of it. The legislation will clearly need to set out the requirement for police and crime commissioners to collaborate and co-ordinate activities with others. When they take on this role, they will also have to bear efficiency savings in mind, so making them will also be in their interests. We are watching that issue closely, and we will want to ensure that elected police and crime commissioners understand the need to co-ordinate effectively with their neighbours.
I believe that the report by HMIC, the Audit Commission and the Wales Audit Office provides a substantial body of evidence to support the case that opportunities are available to make significant efficiency savings. I think that they can be achieved, so long as those at the head of the forces provide the necessary leadership to drive the changes through.
I decided to join some of my colleagues in speaking in this debate because of the deep concern in the west midlands about the impact of reductions in police officers and support staff.
I apologise for missing one or two speeches, but I pay tribute to the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) who, as we all know, chairs the Home Affairs Committee in such a distinguished manner. He made an effective speech, although he will not be surprised to hear that I cannot go along with his taking an “apolitical stance”. I am not aware that I have ever taken an apolitical stance, and it is rather late in the day for me to start! I am not point scoring today, however, although I am happy to do so on many other occasions.
I said in my opening remarks that people are very concerned in the west midlands, and it is for Members and Ministers to decide whether that feeling is genuine. I have had the privilege of representing my constituency of Walsall North for 31 years, and I have always been concerned—as one would expect of every hon. Member—that the police should be able to deal effectively and promptly with my constituents’ complaints about criminality.
The Minister states that there is no, or hardly any, correlation between the number of police officers and tackling criminality, but, like many Members, I simply do not accept that for a moment. There is a correlation. Common sense dictates that if we have fewer police officers, it is far more likely that crime will go undetected.
The hon. Gentleman, like me, is a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Bill Bratton, who appeared before our Committee on 30 November this year, said:
“As a police chief for many, many years, I would always like to have more police, but the reality is it is not just numbers but, more importantly, what you do with them.”
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that argument from someone who spent 40 years heading up the two biggest police forces in America?
It is common sense that a senior police officer will take the view that the way in which police officers are deployed is very important. No one disputes that for a moment, but did not Bill Bratton say on the very same occasion that he would have liked to have more police officers? The hon. Gentleman just said that.
Between 1997-98 and 2010-11, central Government funding for west midlands police rose by 36% in real terms. Let me ask those who are critical whether I am justified in raising concerns. No Conservative Member suggested at the time that less should be spent on policing in the west midlands. The money was spent not for the sake of it but to reduce criminality, which it did. We know that under the comprehensive spending review, police forces in England will receive 20% lower funding by 2014-15, and it is not likely that the west midlands will be any different.
I take it from the intervention of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) that some Conservative Members—not, I hope, all—do not consider police numbers important. Let me nevertheless cite the numbers for west midlands police, comparing the time Labour first took office with now. In 1996, there were 7,145 police officers. There was then a steady increase, and this year’s figure is 8,536. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Cannock Chase or any other Conservative Member would argue that those increases were unjustified and that there should not have been such a substantial increase.
If necessary, I could provide statistics to show that in the west midlands, as in the rest of Britain, crime has reduced—indeed, the Justice Secretary conceded the point yesterday. I find it difficult to believe, even though the Minister shakes his head in disagreement, that the reduction in crime in my region is not somehow connected with the 36% real-terms increase in police funding and the correlative increase in the number of police officers. There has also been a steady increase in the number of police community support officers since they were first established.
I am not one who always defends the actions of the police. I might well be critical of some aspects of policing the demonstrations today and tomorrow—so be it; we shall see. On one point, I am absolutely certain, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East also made it abundantly clear: when our constituents phone the police to report criminality they want effective action, not a prerecorded message with no action being taken for days. I do not suggest that all has been well, but spending less on police, with fewer police officers, will make our constituents’ problems much more difficult.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, in the west midlands, in the black country—not just Birmingham, but my borough, surrounding areas, and the other three black country boroughs—Members have been very pleased, on behalf of our constituents, first and foremost, by the reduction in criminality. Hon. Members may say that we are being too pessimistic, and I obviously hope that a reduction will not to lead to the reversal that many of us fear, but we have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that the progress of the past few years is maintained, that our constituents are protected from criminality as much as possible, and that the police take effective action against criminality when it occurs.
May I say what a privilege it is to follow the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), a distinguished Member of the House? I must say that I agreed with much of what he said. I also thank the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for his eloquent opening of the debate. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) made the point that law and order is a top priority, and that is a view with which I, and all hon. Members, concur.
We will hear shortly how much our police forces will get. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, who is on the Front Bench, has received a letter from me, listing a lot of ideas, following a long meeting I had with my chief constable, on how to save on procurement, duplication of effort and needless bureaucracy. Although I will speak in the main from the perspective of my constituency, Dorset is a very large area with a number of MPs, but it has a small police force and low funding. Consequently, we are probably braced more than most for the cuts announcement.
Over the past decade, Dorset police authority has received chronically low levels of Government funding. To make up the funding, it has had to rely increasingly on the council tax precept. In addition, perhaps the Minister would note that our budget for police community support officers is ring-fenced at £3.2 million, which the police feel is unnecessarily restrictive. If they cannot change their financial organisation to meet the cuts and future requirements, they have much less flexibility.
According to benchmarking studies, Dorset police have been praised for cuts in back-office services such as finance and personnel, and their costs are way below the national average. My concern is that, following the announcement, Dorset police will experience further cuts, following year-on-year cuts over the past 10 years, despite being told that they are doing an excellent job—every time they were told that they were doing an excellent job, the chief constable had less money with which to do it.
If police officers on the beat in Dorset are to be reduced, we will have problems. In my constituency, the island of Portland is a case in point. Portland has a population of about 15,000 people, but some years ago it had a population of 8,000 or 9,000. In those days, it had 13 police officers based in a police station. It now has two mobile police officers, with two PCSOs backing them up. Those officers are based near the island—they share the office that the police are using to organise for the Olympic games. Let me give all credit to those two brave officers and the two PCSOs—I have been out with them on patrol on two occasions, and they do a remarkable job. However, the people on the island of Portland are not convinced that the police have a high enough profile. If cuts come, I am concerned that places such as Portland will be affected.
As Portland and Weymouth will host the Olympic sailing events in 2012, let me touch on Dorset’s projected budget of just under £64.5 million in that year. In an Olympic year, therefore, Dorset police will face a £6.4 million shortfall in their budget. We know that there is a budget for the Olympics, and we are assured that the money is there. However, there is no definitive funding amount. Manpower costs for the Olympics are difficult to estimate, and Dorset police suggest that they will need 600 additional officers to provide security for the games. Will Dorset police meet all the costs of those extra officers, or just their overtime? The costs are not negligible. The police presence will be needed for 64 days, from pre-Olympic training, throughout the games, until the Paralympics afterwards. The Olympic policing budgets are centralised, in 16 different silos, which makes planning and preparation difficult and drawn out. For example, deciding whether to place a man or a camera on a strategic corner can take weeks, wasting a lot of money.
Finally, I agree with the coalition Government’s stance—I believe that the stance is shared across parties—of wanting more neighbourhood policing. When I ask my constituents whether they have seen their neighbourhood sergeant or constable, they say, “Yes, he was here last week, but for the last two months he’s been taken off on other duties.” No doubt there is a shortage of officers on the ground, but may I suggest to the Minister, who will probably pale at the additional cost, that we turn back the clock, in a positive fashion, and have police officers based in local communities? I am talking about reopening police stations, which will allow police officers to get to know—and literally smell—their community. They will know when young Jimmy or Jack is about to commit an offence at six or eight years of age, and prevent him from becoming a hardened criminal when he is 18. We must get officers back into our local communities. At the right moment, a firm word and gentle guidance can head off a life behind bars. In the long run, the cost of reopening local stations would be offset against reductions in crime and imprisonment, and would allow police to reconnect with the communities they serve.
CCTV has its place. I am an ex-soldier, and have experience of using technology to get intelligence and so forth. However, CCTV cannot tell us the demeanour of a young man or woman intent on committing crime. A police officer on the beat is able not only to deter such a person from committing crime, but if the crime is committed the police officer can respond immediately. That boosts confidence in the community and helps a raft of other things, not least tourism, which brings in much-needed cash to South Dorset.
As the Minister will announce the figures imminently—I believe at the end of this week—may I ask him, most humbly, and with the Olympics in mind, please to consider Dorset police—[Interruption.] And other constituencies, as many Members are also concerned about their police. To get police back into the local community, let us reinvest in police stations, to save in the longer term and fight crime.
It is a privilege to speak after the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), who represents an area that I know very well. For many years I led all the unions at the Portland naval base, and I know that it is a fine community and a fine town.
The hon. Gentleman spoke with passion and conviction about the importance of police officers on the beat to both detection and deterrence. My experience of them, in the west midlands, is very similar to his. I have seen at first hand the outstanding work done by the police service there, and, while I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) that the police do not always get it right, I know that the community in the west midlands value their police service. There have been real improvements in recent years, and I have seen the consequences at first hand. Let me give three brief examples.
The first example is this. Nine months ago, in Stockland Green in my constituency, there was a serious increase in crime, including robberies and violent crime. The police mounted a major operation involving not only police officers on the beat, but the highly effective intelligence work behind the scenes that was described by the hon. Member for South Dorset. As a consequence, a number of arrests were made and the problem was dealt with very efficiently.
Secondly, I have seen at first hand how quickly the police respond to serious crimes in my constituency. I say with some sadness that there have been three knife murders in Erdington over the past nine months. It would not be appropriate to comment on the outcome of legal processes that are yet to be concluded, but I will say that the sheer scale of the operation that was mounted, quickly and effectively, in all three cases was hugely reassuring to a community who were rightly concerned about what were very serious offences.
Thirdly, I have seen at first hand the work of the local tasking groups. In Castle Vale, a very fine community in my constituency, the police sit down together with representatives of the local community, and they work together in a highly effective way to target issues of real concern such as antisocial behaviour.
I pay tribute to the work done by police community support officers, whom I have seen on the beat in the Erdington high street area. They are an immensely reassuring presence and they do a very good job, not least in freeing police officers to concentrate on what police officers are best at. I also pay tribute to our chief constable, Chris Sims. Chris is an able leader of the West Midlands police service, although he has had to deal with some problems in it. He is also the national champion of the Association of Chief Police Officers on the issue of bureaucracy—it is common ground that we can reduce back-office costs, for instance—and gives a national lead in the vital areas of forensic science and detection.
Not only is the West Midlands police service of great importance in the west midlands, but it performs those major national functions, as well as supporting other police services. It will play an important role in the run-up to and during the Olympics, and—as the Minister knows—it also plays an important role next door in Warwickshire when big problems arise. Time and again, the Warwickshire police service can count on the tried and tested West Midlands service.
I welcomed this morning’s meeting with the Minister. I hope that, for all the reasons that I have given, he will accept the real concern that is being expressed in the west midlands about the potentially serious consequences of a reduction of up to 2,500—including 1,200 police officers—in the West Midlands police service over the next four years, and of a potential reduction of 400 police officers before 1 April next year.
At the heart of the dilemma facing the police service in the west midlands is the fact that the financial structure in an area of high demand and high need is very different from that in Surrey. More than 80% of the funding of the West Midlands service comes from central Government, as opposed to 50% in Surrey. I hope the Minister will accept that if the Government apply quick and deep cuts indiscriminately to all police services, there will be particularly serious consequences in the west midlands.
The police service in my constituency, in Birmingham and in the west midlands, is already having to plan for the consequences of what it faces—including the compulsory retirement, under regulation A19 of the Police Pensions Regulations 1987, of some of the best long-serving police officers, several hundred of whom may have to go before April next year unless the Government change their mind. It is also planning for a significant reduction in the visibility of policing on the streets in the west midlands more generally and in Birmingham in particular, because it believes that it has no alternative. All that is a result of the scale and speed of what is being expected of the police service in the west midlands.
I know of no police service that is incapable of improvement. Yes, there is a debate to be had about how to reduce back-office costs. When our party was in government, it made clear that it considered that to be necessary. However, I ask the Government to accept a simple reality. Unless they change course, and if in 2011 we see a toxic combination of rising unemployment and falling police numbers in Birmingham, crime will inevitably increase. The first duty of any Government is to ensure the safety and security of our communities, in the midlands and throughout the country. Even at this late stage, I urge the Minister, the Home Secretary and the Government to hear the strong concerns expressed by the people of Erdington, Birmingham and the west midlands.
I have a background in criminal law, and have spent a large part of my time down the years prosecuting and defending people in various trials, including murder trials.
I have been out on the beat with members of the Hexham constabulary, who do an amazing job in supporting the police and the community. They undoubtedly need our support, and we should provide that support unequivocally—for the police force and for the operational command—if at all possible; but if we are to do that, we must change the position that we acquired on 7 May. There is currently a significant financial deficit, and that means that we must make choices. Whether we like it or not, we have had to make cuts. That gives no one any pleasure, but we have been forced to do it by our present position.
We are adopting a good procedure in attempting to do a series of things at the same time. There will be a settlement. My local chief constable, who has done an amazing job, wrote to me outlining the cuts that she might have to make, which are undeniably significant. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and others have pointed out that the cuts are a problem that we must address, but choices need to be made, and the chief constable is dealing with them very well. There will be a reduction of 450 officers or civilian staff. In this context, I should remind the House that she was the chief constable who looked after Raoul Moat and all the difficulties and problems that followed on from the events in the summer. She has done a sterling job in trying to hold everything together, but when I asked the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs what he would cut and what his approach would be, he initially said, “I can’t really answer that question,” but at the very end of his speech he said, “This will require the Home Secretary to go back to the Chancellor and ask for more money.”
That is an interesting observation, but when the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) was Home Secretary he famously said there would not be enough money to pay for various things, and the home affairs budget would clearly have gone down. It is not in dispute that that will present the Department with a significant problem. Efforts are being made, but a choice had to be made, and I applaud the Government on the choice they made and for going ahead with it.
I asked the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) whether he supported the police and crime commissioner changes. We find from talking to our constituents that the centralisation of control under Labour over the past 13 years is a significant problem. The legislation that the Labour Government brought in put ever more work under Whitehall control. The Home Secretary was given ever stronger powers to intervene and to direct police authorities. Labour’s approach failed to recognise the fundamental problem of policing, which is that those who should be in the driving seat, and those who suffer when things do not work, are the public, not the Government.
In the last year prior to the change in Government there were 52 documents of central policy guidance, and a further 60 on planning. The average length of the manuals was just under 100 pages, and they included 4,000 new promises. The principle is very simple: the police are there to serve the local community, not Whitehall, but for too long they have been serving Whitehall.
The hon. Gentleman’s esoteric dissertation on central Government diktats is all very interesting, but does he not accept this simple reality: as a consequence of what Whitehall is now doing in front-loading major cuts to the police service—7% and 6% in the first two years—local police services generally are faced with a nigh-on impossible problem and the West Midlands police service in particular will lose 400 police officers by 1 April next year?
I make this simple point: what would Labour have cut? All parties would now be facing this difficulty and, frankly, it is fanciful to argue there would not have been any cuts whatever to, say, the Birmingham or Northumberland police forces.
I want to turn now to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. When under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), Labour planned for elected representatives. In the 2008 draft legislative programme it announced that its Policing and Crime Bill would include proposals to provide
“a clear and powerful public voice in decision making through directly elected representatives”.
To my untutored mind, having done nearly 20 years at the Bar, that sounds remarkably similar to what we are introducing now. Labour referred to elected representatives in a policing Green Paper published in July 2008. I accept that I was in another place.
No, you are wrong. The promotion is delightful, but it is premature. Mention has been made of “Strictly Come Dancing” and other things, but I was not in the House of Lords then. Instead, I was probably somewhere near the Old Bailey. My point is that even Ed Balls has conceded that there is more to do on accountability.
If I understand correctly, the hon. Gentleman was criticising the previous Government for having proposed elected police commissioners and for then abandoning the idea. That is what happened, but that is part of the democratic process. The Home Affairs Committee—which by no means has the final say in such matters—heard representations from the police authorities and senior police officers. We discussed the matter and we came to the conclusion that the Government should not go ahead with the idea. That was not decisive in influencing the Government, but there is nothing wrong with a Government listening, and in my view they made the right decision.
There were two efforts in respect of this particular proposal, and it is right that certain people have had reservations as time has passed, but let me give one particular example. Sir Hugh Orde was previously a very vocal critic, even predicting that some officers would resign, but following the Queen’s Speech he has changed his position. He now welcomes a commitment to local accountability and says he would work with the Government to protect operational independence. As he put it:
“Policing has always been about serving and answering to local communities. Those are the origins of policing in this country and chief officers”—
and I stress this point—
“welcome the commitment towards local accountability.”
I should also make the point that this proposal has not come from out of the blue. It has been proposed in the past, and it has also been tried in different contexts in America. If we can harness this new proposal and reform the justice system in the way that, without a shadow of a doubt, it requires, we can make a genuine effort to engage in a three-pronged attack to take this matter forward.
I should first declare an interest: I am a member of the Kent police authority.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon.—and perhaps learned—Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and I particularly welcome the emphasis he placed on the need for the localisation of policing decisions, as opposed to the centralisation that went on before. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who I have not previously had the pleasure of hearing make a speech. There has been strong representation from the west midlands in today’s debate, and Members representing constituencies in that area have put their case well. The Conservative party was welcomed by chief constable Chris Sims in October when he organised the security for our conference, and we were very impressed with the service we received.
May I first tackle two propositions put forward by Labour Members? The first is that morale in the police is plummeting and that this settlement will lead to a worse service being provided by them. That is not my experience; I am consistently struck by the professionalism of officers in Kent and elsewhere in the country where I meet police officers. In Kent, we have been planning for many months for these grant reductions. The work that has been done and the engagement of every different area of Kent police in finding substantial savings has been extraordinarily impressive. I have not detected any reduction in morale. Officers and staff appreciate that there has been a very serious recession across the country and in the private sector, where many people have lost their jobs, had pay freezes or had severe pay cuts, and that the police family have come through that period very well. In addition, this Government kept to the third year of the pay review that had been agreed, and I know that that was greatly appreciated in many quarters.
The second proposition relates to the debate about police numbers and the level of crime. I heard the interview that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice gave on Radio 4, in which he made perfectly sensible remarks, and I do not understand the excitement of Labour Members about this issue. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) said that the number of West Midlands police officers had increased from 7,135 in 1996 to 8,536 this year. The level of crime did decrease over that period, certainly according to the British crime survey, which Labour Members particularly like to cite. What the hon. Gentleman did not say is that nationally quite a reduction in police numbers took place during part of that period—until about 2002-03—and thereafter those numbers rose. According to the British crime survey, there was a consistent reduction in the level of crime throughout the period—that started in 1994, as we heard from Labour Members yesterday. That does not correlate with the trend in police numbers over that period, so there is no simple link and it is very difficult to show such a correlation statistically.
What I know from my constituency is that police officers, effectively placed and doing the right thing, can make an enormous difference. For example, we introduced neighbourhood task teams to support neighbourhood policing. Medway has had two teams, comprising a sergeant and five or six constables, which support the neighbourhood policing teams, concentrating on particularly difficult high-crime areas. One huge success has been that, through working with other agencies, they have almost eradicated street prostitution in Chatham, which has been a problem for centuries. This is about working with other agencies. A particular team has helped bring about that success, but overall it is not possible to demonstrate a direct or simple relationship between police numbers and crime, and we need to recognise that.
Decisions on police numbers should be taken by local communities. The single most important change that we are about to see in policing is that, for the first time, this will not be about the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) suggesting that the Home Office commission research to decide what to do, or even about this House debating what we want police numbers to be and where we want them to be; this will be a decision for each local community to take, through the commissioner who they elect to oversee and organise their police force locally. That will be a hugely healthy change from the current situation.
I have always found, both as a councillor and as a member of a police authority—and in this House, to an extent—that democratic oversight is one of the key drivers of value for money in public services. This is about scrutinising what the employees, the officers and the people delivering the service are doing and ensuring that they are delivering value for money for the taxpayer. I am not convinced that the same savings have been made in national Government as have been made in areas where there is more direct democratic oversight: in local government and, to an extent, in police authorities. If each Department were to report to the relevant Select Committee and the permanent secretary were to put his budget before that Committee for approval and discussion, item by item, that would help us to find savings.
The Government have set out a strong savings programme, but what I see when I participate in the budget review group and the audit and finance committee of our police authority in Kent is that members of the authority, a majority of whom are elected—it is the elected members who must pass the police precept every year—subject the police officers to an enormous degree of scrutiny. Through that process we have made much more substantial savings than we have been ordered to find by the centre. When we examine the reductions in police grant that are coming, the decision will be taken locally as to what the level of precept will be.
Kent’s new chief constable, whom we brought in from Norfolk, where he had been deputy chief constable and had done fantastic work in improving public confidence, making significant savings and restructuring the force, said that he sees these grant reductions as an opportunity to deliver a more efficient and effective force. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members say that he has no choice, but very often when the money is increased by year and there is not the great pressure to find savings and be efficient, it is human nature for people occasionally not to act as efficiently as they might. Perhaps more people are employed in a particular area or perhaps the focus is on something that needed to be done some years ago when things have moved on and it is not necessarily the priority it once was. It is by finding such savings and having proper democratic oversight of that process that we should be able to make our policing more efficient and effective.
The constant quest for efficiency and effectiveness is common ground between us, but what has the hon. Gentleman got to say to the people of the west midlands who are led by a chief constable who is the national champion on bureaucracy and they have a police service that has already made very significant changes to promote efficiency and effectiveness, but it now says that because of the scale and speed of what it is being asked to do, there will be significant cuts to front-line policing and some of the best, long-serving officers in the police service will be compulsorily retired?
Having a national champion on bureaucracy in the way that it has been organised by the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is an organisation that does not entirely respond to this House and has little if any statutory basis, is not the way to tackle bureaucracy. We have had far more success in finding savings in Kent by having a majority of elected members who sit down with the officers who spend the money.
The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the work is best done locally, and he showed me the good work being done in Kent when I went to visit his constituency, but there is a need to share good practice. What I saw in Rochester and Strood ought to be rolled out in other parts of the country. So even though the savings are made locally, there needs to a mechanism—it could be the Home Office or this could be done through Jan Berry—that will make sure that other police authorities can follow what Kent is doing.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Chair of our Home Affairs Committee, for his comments. He has kindly arranged to use our website to promote some of that good practice, such as the safe exit scheme and our offender management unit, in which we are working closely with probation and other agencies. There is enormous scope for savings through such collaboration.
I do not understand why most forces in the country are not making significant savings through collaboration. I know that Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire have quite a strong programme, but I have not seen any other forces that have anything like the level of collaboration or are making the savings that have been delivered in Kent and Essex. That might be because the forces and counties of Kent and Essex are of a similar size and there might not be the sensitivities about one force being perceived to be taking the lead. It might also be because the personalities and individuals involved are particularly committed to the process. We now have, however, one single directorate to deal with all organised, serious and major crime. A substantial number of police officers have been transferred from each force into a joint directorate that reports to a single assistant chief constable. We have a single director of IT and we procure all our services through a joint procurement centre, and I do not understand why other forces have not taken the opportunity to find savings so that they can reinvest them in the front line. It is happening to an extent, but collaboration elsewhere has been very disappointing.
I am speaking about collaboration not just between forces but between different agencies, such as working with councils—a point we heard about from my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). In Medway we have a basic command unit that is coterminous with the unitary council. That might have assisted us, but it is by working as a team and focusing the resources on the areas where the public want to see them used that we have managed to find savings, to cut crime and to improve confidence at the same time.
Although the process is different in policing from elsewhere in the public sector, there will be the introduction of directly elected police commissioners alongside the front-loading of the reductions, the potential pay freezes for two years and the review of terms of conditions—and I greatly welcome the work that Tom Winsor is doing. I made the point in my ten-minute rule Bill about the importance of police forces’ being able to make a rational decision about how many officers, PCSOs and other civilians they need—that issue has also been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak—and it is essential that forces should have the freedom to make that decision. I am delighted that Tom Winsor is working so hard on that and we look forward to his interim report in February. We must knit together the democratic control and the greater efficiency through collaboration, as well have as a sensible review of terms and conditions while recognising how much the police do and what they do to serve this country and our communities. These estimates and the proposals for directly elected police commissioners are the way forward. They will lead to a revolution in policing in our country that will put the public in charge. It is possible for that to happen even in the tightened financial environment in which we find ourselves.
In the current economic climate, the police must play their part and do more with less. That is not an unreasonable request. The private and public sectors have had to make significant reductions and changes in working practices. Opposition Members constantly cite cuts of 20%, but taken over five years that works out as a 4% cut each year over the next four years, taking into consideration the fact that some funds can be raised under the local council tax precept.
There have been references to cuts in front-line officers, and I would like to offer some solutions. Politicians often come up with problems and talk about them in this Chamber for many hours, but they do not always come up with solutions. It concerns me when I hear chief constables and Opposition Members talking about cuts to the number of front-line officers.
Since I was elected for Weaver Vale, which is a mid-Cheshire seat, I have spent as much time as I can with the Cheshire constabulary, going out on night shifts in Runcorn on a Friday night and, last Friday night, in Northwich.
It varies from community to community. When I was a local councillor, there was much concern about antisocial behaviour. Despite many attempts to get the local police to spend more time on the street corners, as there was concern about youths allegedly causing trouble, they could never afford the time. The parish council made a decision significantly to increase the precept to pay for the new police community support officers. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise figure, but it could be significant if that community decided to increase the precept to allow a dedicated community support officer for that particular area.
The police do their best to meet the public’s expectation of having officers on the beat, but no police force can have officers on street corners every Friday, Saturday or Sunday night. The public expect to see officers on the beat, walking around, but that is not always physically possible. Credit should be given to the previous Government for the way they introduced police community support officers, because they made a difference to the perception as well as the quality of life of many citizens. Local communities can get together to pay for PCSOs.
Front-line cuts have been mentioned many times. If there is a freeze on recruitment and pay, over a few years there will be a reduction in the number of regular police officers. However, I do not hear the role of special constables mentioned in this House. I can only refer to Cheshire constabulary, but for many years the chief constables of Cheshire have spent a lot of time training and recruiting special constables.
Last Friday we had a particularly long and frosty evening. A dozen officers were on duty from 7 o’clock in the evening to 3 o’clock in the morning, half of them special constables. I was a special constable in the 1980s, so before I went out I tried on my old uniform. It fitted where it touched, so I quickly put it back in its suitcase and back in the attic. Before I went out, I looked at the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and various police reforms that were made in the ’80s so that I could prepare myself for what is going on in the 21st century.
In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism of the special constables. Half a dozen were on duty on that evening. Each one is a volunteer and an unpaid volunteer, which is not often mentioned. I hear Opposition Members talking about the big society, and there is no better example of it than the special constabulary. It comprises ordinary members of the public serving their community and they are unpaid. That is not to say that members of the special constabulary do not have the ambition to join the regular force—they do.
My point is that we have a wonderful opportunity to recruit special constables at this difficult time, when there is a freeze on regular recruitment. The training for specials is exactly the same as that given to regular policemen. If an individual wants to join a police force, they can join the special constabulary, although they will not be paid, and can train over the next two or three years while there is a recruitment freeze. During those two or three years, they can learn the ropes and how to become full-time policemen. I am sure that when they submit their CV and application to become a regular police officer in two or three years’ time, their experience will be taken into account by the chief constable. That would enable the communities I serve and represent to have front-line policing, because special constables carry warrants and can make arrests. Indeed, they can do everything that regular police officers can do.
On Friday night, I went out with the police in a minibus, in a Panda car and on foot—walking the main streets of Northwich. Policing is not straightforward. I often hear comments from the public and Members about wanting officers not in cars but on the beat, as though one could simply wave a magic wand to achieve that. If the police are to serve the whole community, there will be times when they need to be in patrol cars and times when they need to be on the beat.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s view that special constables make an important contribution; I have seen it for myself when I have been out on patrol with them, so I totally agree. However, they are additional officers and the average borough commander cannot place them on the rota because he is never sure how many might be available. There is a difficulty with the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman seems to be coming close to making which is that the specials should substitute for the officers who have been lost through cuts. If that approach were taken, it would become harder to plan basic policing operations because the commander would not know how many specials would be available at any given time.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I agree with him, but the situation varies from force to force. The leadership and management of individual forces are important; best practice has been mentioned in that regard. Cheshire constabulary has invested a lot of time in special constables because the force is relatively small, and I respectfully suggest that other forces—I am not thinking of any particular force, but perhaps the metropolitan and larger forces—could learn a thing or two about recruiting specials.
The hon. Gentleman says that the officer in charge of his constabulary is never sure how many specials will be on duty at a certain time, but this comes down to leadership and management. The senior officers in my constituency know exactly how many special constables will be there on the all-important Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, which is when additional help is strongly appreciated. I have spoken to special constables who have ambitions to become regular policemen. They work during the day and volunteer their time in the evenings, including Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I do not say that they could be a long-term replacement, but merely point out that in the short term I do not accept what I hear chief constables say about front-line cuts in officers. There are creative ways in which specials can be used as a solution in the short term, rather than talking about headline cuts.
PCSOs also play an important role and really involve themselves in the community. I have heard worrying stories about many PCSOs being lost across the country, but they can be paid for through local precepting in town and parish councils. I also find that moneys are held in town and parish council accounts for emergencies. I encourage all chief constables and senior officers to look around their communities to see whether any funds have been siphoned or hidden away for a rainy day. I get very concerned when I hear about those vital officers being made redundant, because I do not accept that it is necessary, especially in the short term.
When I went out on Friday night and in Runcorn previously, I was struck by the fact that Cheshire force sends its police out singly. They go out on their own but have significant and efficient back-up available at a moment’s notice, which means that there are many police officers on public view. Earlier, I heard it said that 11% of officers are available at any one time, but in Cheshire a significant number of officers are out on the beat working on their own, and support is there for them very quickly if need be.
Cutting the amount of police time spent on paperwork has not really been mentioned. A previous Prime Minister talked about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. One thing that we could do as a society and as a country is to tackle the abuse of alcohol. Virtually every call on Friday evening involved people who were badly intoxicated and reliant on alcohol. They had lost structure in their lives and it was quite pitiful to be called to the streets or their homes to assist them.
I cannot help feeling that local authorities that grant long, late-night licences to clubs in town centres and elsewhere, enabling alcohol to be served at 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning, put huge pressures on police authorities and forces. Things might be relatively quiet until 11 o’clock at night, but at 2 o’clock in the morning there is mayhem on the streets with intoxicated people brawling. On Friday night—I was told that it was a relatively quiet night—PC Frost was out in force but there were still several arrests of people fighting in the streets of Northwich. Local authorities have a big role to play and they need to communicate better with the police regarding recommendations on late licensing.
My hon. Friend refers to PC Frost and the need for other agencies to work with the police as appropriate. Is he aware of an incident in Kent in which the police control centre received a call—this has been publicised—from a woman asking the police to come out because someone had stolen the snowman she had built in her front garden?
Yes, we were laughing about that on Friday night. The Kent accents were particularly distinct and we had a laugh about it. There are still plenty of snowmen in Cheshire—at least there were when I left on Monday. [Interruption.] Snow joke indeed.
Local authorities will grant late night licensing to pubs and clubs on the one hand, but on the other they are particularly restrictive regarding new businesses. In my area, a new application has been submitted for a restaurant bar in a particularly pleasant location, but because it is a continental-style restaurant—it has no taps on the bar and serves continental lagers and wine by the glass—the local authority restricts its licence. People have to drink up by 8 o’clock and the doors have to be closed, which makes the business unviable. We need to look at our licensing laws and help the police do what they are supposed to do, which is to protect us from violent criminals.
To sum up, police forces do not have to cut front-line policing but should utilise the special constabulary. If people want to become police officers, there is no better way of showing commitment than by volunteering their time and serving their community in the current difficult economic climate.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this constructive and well-mannered debate. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their genuine concerns in a fairly non-political way.
There has been much speculation today and in the past few weeks about the possible effects of the cuts. It is pure speculation because we still do not know what the individual settlements will be. It is disappointing to Members on the Government side that the Opposition still have not had the good grace to tell us where they would make their cuts. I thought that the answer given by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) when he was pushed on this issue was very interesting. Essentially, he said that he would go back to the Treasury to ask for more money, so perhaps the Opposition do not accept there should be any cuts whatever in policing. It would be interesting if that point were addressed in the winding-up speech.
I want to address an issue at the core of this debate—the effect that the reduction in funding will have on police numbers. I know that that is a totemic issue for the Opposition, and it is easy to understand why, because the Labour Government, in their 13 years in office, were very successful at one thing: persuading this country that only by pouring more money in can we get better results out. That is why the debate about policing has always focused on the number of police rather than what they do all day. [Interruption.] We have a record number—140,000—as someone shouts from a sedentary position, but seemingly, simply because we have record police numbers and PCSOs, Labour Members think we have record effective policing. That is simply not an equation that works.
Labour Members do not care whether police officers are on patrol, filling in forms or responding to jobs. They seem incapable of acknowledging that having more and more police officers doing more and more administrative and bureaucratic tasks does not mean better policing. Sadly for the Opposition, the debate has moved on. They need not take my word for it; they can take that of someone who knows more about policing and fighting crime than all of us in the Chamber put together—Bill Bratton, who was chief of police of the Los Angeles police department, of New York city and of Boston. He is famous across the world for putting the broken windows theory into practice. He introduced the CompStat system of tracking crimes, which is still in use today and massively reduced crime in New York city, where he devolved decision making to precinct level and got rid of a backlog of 50,000 unserved warrants. When he was chief of police in Los Angeles, crime within that city dropped for six consecutive years. In 2007, the LA police commission reappointed Bratton to a second five-year term, which was the first time it had made such a reappointment in almost 20 years.
It is fair to say that that guy knows what he is on about, and here is what he said to the Home Affairs Committee on 30 November. The Chair, the right hon. Member for Leicester East, said:
“There is a debate at the moment, obviously because of the current economic climate that will result in the numbers of police officers in a local area being reduced. Do you think there is any correlation between the numbers of officers in a particular area and the level of crime?”
Bill Bratton replied:
“As a police chief for many, many years, I would always like to have more police, but the reality is it is not just numbers but, more importantly, what you do with them. More is fine, but if they’re just standing around or if they’re not focused on issues of concern to the public, then those numbers are not… going to achieve what you would hope to achieve, which is improve public safety and reduce crime.”
I shall give another quote from what Bill Bratton said to us:
“So, I had 38,000 police officers in New York City. In Los Angeles I had 9,000. Los Angeles: 500 square miles, worst gang problem in America, 4 million residents. New York: 38,000 police officers, 300 square miles, 8 million residents, a drug crime problem. To have the equivalent of what I had in New York City in Los Angeles, I would need 18,000 police officers, I only had 9,000 but, over a seven-year period, every year crime went down in Los Angeles… the public perception of police and their effectiveness improved”,
“the adage: it’s not so much the numbers but how you use them, how you inspire them, how you direct them and what their priorities are.”
If it is not a matter of numbers, it is about what the police do all day, and the fact is that in this country the police spend a huge amount of time filling in forms. On 15 March 2007, I went out on the beat in Paddington with the Met, one of the more advanced forces in this country. This is what Met police have to fill in for a single domestic violence incident: a124D paper booklet in the victim’s house; an evidence and actions booklet, which is the same as an old pocketbook, but with structured questions; a custody record, in the station if someone is arrested, with the same details as are in the EAB, which they give to the custody sergeant to rekey into his computer system; a CRISS report, which is an electronic crime report filled in by the officer at the station and that is used for Home Office statistics; a MERLIN report, which involves a national computer system with details of vulnerable children from domestic violence backgrounds—the same details as in the first two forms; a CRIMINT report, which is a Met police-wide intelligence system; and the case papers—that is, the MG forms, which are Word documents that get sent to the Crown Prosecution Service for court. It is not uncommon in the Met and other police forces for officers to be off for the rest of the shift following one domestic violence incident arrest. That is what they are spending their time doing—this mad bureaucracy and paperwork. It is not about the number of police officers; it is about what they do all day on their shifts.
As we have heard recently, Home Office figures have revealed that officers now spend more time on paperwork than on patrol—just 14% of their time on patrol compared with 20% on paperwork. That is why I am delighted that this coalition, like Bill Bratton, is dealing with the reality of the cuts by focusing not on police numbers, but on what the police do all day. Only by clearing away this bureaucracy and these inefficient, wasteful practices will we get the police service that this country deserves.
With the leave of the House, I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me speak at this point in the debate. I shall explain why I am doing so. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley), who is the youngest member of the Home Affairs Committee. That is my cue to say that the second Wednesday in December is the date of the annual Westminster children’s party for the children of MPs and staff. I am the host, as I have been for the past 14 years; my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), the shadow Home Secretary, is Santa Claus, so please do not detain him for too long. Unfortunately, I am therefore unable to be present for the end of the debate, although I wish I could be. I will certainly read with great care the report of the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Minister, and by the Minister.
The debate has been outstanding, with some excellent speeches, and I commend the hon. Members for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) and the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I also commend the four members of the Home Affairs Committee—my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and the hon. Members for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) and for Cannock Chase—for their contributions.
This debate gives us the perfect setting for hearing what Front Benchers have to say about these issues. I can pledge to Parliament—we have been elected by the whole of Parliament, with members of the Committee elected by their party groups—that we will look at the policing issue very carefully indeed. We will produce thoughtful reports. Sometimes, obviously, we will have to be critical of the Government. When they are doing the right thing we will praise them. I can promise the Minister that we will ensure that the reports are thorough, and that they help him and the rest of Parliament to deliberate on these very important issues. I shall now hand over to those on the Front Benches.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has said, this has been an interesting and thoughtful debate, with a large number of contributions from both sides of the House. Before my right hon. Friend rushes off to his important engagement, may I say to him that his chairmanship of the Select Committee over the past few years has been a model of how to chair a Select Committee? There are difficulties sometimes, because we all have party allegiances, but he knows that one of the strengths of the Select Committee system is the way in which it tries to bring some independence of thought to proceedings. That is particularly important when it comes to the Chairs of those Committees. He has chaired the Committee exceptionally well, and I look forward to reading its further reports on policing matters.
I also congratulate my hon. Friends from the west midlands, my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) and for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), who met and made representations to the Minister about their concerns regarding the policing reductions that we will see over the next few years. I hope that when he makes his winding-up speech he will comment in particular on the points that they made.
I shall not pick out every Government Member who spoke, but I found it interesting that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), for example, should make a plea for opening police stations—because the Minister is going to close them. I am sure he will have an interesting debate with the Minister about that, but he made an important point about the need for community and neighbourhood policing, and let us hope that, whatever happens over the next few years, neighbourhood policing and police presence on the street will be effectively maintained.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), whom I cannot see in the Chamber at the moment, made an important point when he said that this is all about choices. Indeed it is. He defended the choice before us on the basis of economic necessity, but our view is that the police have fared particularly badly in the budget settlement and comprehensive spending review. Other Departments have fared significantly better, so somewhere along the line a choice was made about the budget settlement for the police, as opposed to the budget settlement for other Departments.
I should like to praise the police service, police officers, police community support officers, police staff and, indeed, police authority members for the excellent work that they do. We have seen it in London, in particular, over the past couple of weeks, but in other parts of the country, too. When we have these debates, it would be remiss of us not to put on the record every time the wholehearted support of all Members for the police throughout the country, and for their hard work. To be fair, I know the Minister does that. There might be differences between us over how we provide that support, but we need always to recognise their dedication and public service, and the duty that they perform on behalf of all of us throughout our country.
Helped by a record number of police officers, crime fell by 43% under the previous Government, and the chance of being a victim of crime is at a 30-year low, but the Government’s cuts to policing, starting next year as the estimates for 2011-12 show, will put that progress at risk. By cutting police funding by 20% over the next four years, the Government are taking big risks with the public’s safety and undermining the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour.
The speed and scale of the Government’s cuts have put police forces and chief constables in an impossible position. A number of forces have already announced plans to lose thousands of police officers and police staff, blowing apart the Government’s claims that the front line can be protected. Indeed, many of the most experienced officers in our police forces will have to go.
People will be rightly worried that, at the same time as cutting funding for front-line police, the Government want to spend more than £100 million on bringing in directly elected police commissioners—a sum that, according to the Association of Police Authorities, is equivalent to 600 police officers. That controversial experiment risks politicising the police at huge cost to the taxpayer, and it will do little to improve police accountability.
The coalition’s spending review announced that central Government police funding will be cut by 20% in real terms by 2014-15. Funding allocations for individual police forces are expected to be announced in the next few days, so perhaps the Minister will enlighten us on when that will be. Following consultation, a further debate will be possible, as we will know more about the impact on all individual forces. The hon. Member for South Dorset and others, including the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills), made the point about what that will mean for individual police forces throughout the country.
The biggest cuts will be next year and the year after, with funding reduced by 6% in 2011-12 and by 8% in 2012-13. Front-loading the cuts will make it even more difficult to minimise the impact on front-line policing through efficiency savings. The Minister has just received a letter from senior Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and independent members of the APA, urging him to reconsider the front-loaded cuts in 2011-12 and 2012-13 in order to
“avoid long-term damage to policing capability”.
The letter warns that the current cuts timetable will also mean fewer police community support officers and could affect the
“safe and secure delivery of the Olympics”
Those cuts go way beyond what experts believe can be achieved through efficiency savings and better procurement. In other words, a 6% cut next year is too much. Coalition Ministers have regularly quoted from the report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, “Valuing the Police: policing in an age of austerity”, which was published in July, and it says that a “re-design” of the police system could
“at best...save 12% of central government funding, while maintaining police availability”.
The front-loaded cuts of 20% that will start in 2011-12 go significantly beyond that.
A number of Government Back Benchers have said that police forces across the country can make efficiency savings without impacting on the front line. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) asked what the Opposition have said about that. The previous Home Secretary made it clear that he accepted the 12% figure and the HMIC report. However, the present Government propose to go beyond 12% to 20%.
The Minister will hide behind local precepting and councils raising money to make up some of the gap, but that is smoke and mirrors—a sleight of hand. There is a 20% reduction in central Government funding to police forces across the country. That goes beyond the HMIC recommendation. Hon. Members must understand that although some money can be saved through efficiency, that amount cannot be saved without impacting on the front line.
I am quoting the Green Book and the HMIC report. We will see over the next one, two, three and four years whether the hon. Gentleman is right in the statistics that he has quoted from this book—that saving and this saving. We will see whether what he says stands up in police forces in Kent, Nottinghamshire, the west midlands and elsewhere across England and Wales, or whether we will see massive losses of police officers, police community support officers and police staff. Then we will see who has understood the statistics and figures correctly, and who is actually right. I will have a side wager with the hon. Gentleman, and it will not be me who is out of pocket, but him.
I repeat the call that has been made to the Home Secretary and other Ministers to go back and say to the Treasury that the police spending settlement is not acceptable, that it must be reopened and improved. Will the Minister give us that commitment in discussing the estimates for 2011-12, or does he just intend to carry on with the settlement as it stands? As the hon. Member for Hexham said, choices are available to the Government. The Minister can try to argue for a better deal, like those for schools, hospitals and the Ministry of Defence. The big casualty in the comprehensive spending review was the Home Office, and therefore the police service and police forces of this country. I know that the Minister says that there is no link between levels of crime and police numbers, but that is not what the public say.
Let us look at some examples. The hon. Member for South Dorset is already getting cold feet about reductions in police officer numbers in his area, and he will not be the only one. Hon. Members will have to go back and say that things will be tough. There will be police officer cuts across the country: Greater Manchester police have announced a cut of 1,387 officers and 1,557 staff; North Wales police have announced that 440 posts will be cut, made up of 230 police officers and 210 staff; Northumbria police have announced a cut of 450 civilian staff; Thames Valley police have announced 800 staff cuts, but there is no breakdown between police officers and police staff; and West Midlands police have announced a cut of 2,200 posts, made up of 1,100 police officers and 1,100 staff.
Whatever the book says, and whatever Government Members say, I am willing to go to each and every one of their constituencies and ask the public whether they want fewer police officers or more police officers on their streets. I will ask them whether they believe that the Government should have prioritised police spending more in the Budget so that police officer posts, police staff and PCSOs could have been protected, or whether they were a price worth paying.
A few months into this new Tory-led Government, I believe that people will be astonished that police recruitment has been frozen, thousands of police officer posts are to be lost and experienced police officers will be forced to retire, including in my own area of Nottinghamshire.
Could the hon. Gentleman help us by telling us what percentage of the budget his party would have cut had it been returned to government, and what the consequences would have been for police numbers? It is a fact, is it not, that Labour would have cut the budget by 20% and made as many reductions in police numbers?
That is not the case. The hon. Lady will know, as I pointed out earlier, that we would have accepted what the HMIC report says. The previous Home Secretary made that clear. That report is clear that the level of savings set out in it can be made over four years without having an impact on the front line, but that if cuts go beyond that, they will have an impact on front-line and visible policing.
On top of what I have just mentioned, the number of police community support officers will go down and police staff numbers will fall dramatically. Coalition Members will have some explaining to do when they go back to their constituencies. The estimates for 2011-12 will be just the start, unless the Minister and his colleagues start to stand up for the police. They should stop defending the cuts and start defending the police and the communities that they serve.
I welcome the opportunity to join in this debate, and I welcome the introduction to it by the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and the report that his Committee has just published. I am sorry that he is not here to listen to these final contributions, but I understand why he has had to leave. The Committee’s report was very helpful, and we look forward to its further reports.
There have been a number of important and useful contributions to the debate, and I hope to address them during the course of my remarks. I am afraid I did not think that the shadow Minister’s response did justice to a number of the serious points that were raised by Labour Members as well as by coalition Members about the importance of police deployment, how savings are to be driven in the police and the value of leadership. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) particularly mentioned the important role that police authorities will have in the next few months in driving value for money and helping police forces deliver leadership.
Let us begin by discussing what we agree about. We all agree about the importance of the police and of valuing them. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was absolutely right to take the opportunity, as I always try to do, to thank the police for what they do. I am sure that they are in action once again just outside the House in relation to the protest that is being run again today. Every day, police officers act to keep us safe and many of them take risks in doing so, and we should thank them for their work. They are an immensely important public service.
I apologise to Members of all parties, because I am afraid I will not be able to indicate the provisional grants for individual forces today. We will announce them before Christmas, and there will be the usual parliamentary debate on them next year. As all Members will understand, I cannot therefore comment on individual forces’ specific grant issues. I can say that I am paying the closest attention to hon. Members’ representations, including those from the West Midlands force area. I will continue to do so after the provisional allocations are announced.
The backdrop to the debate is the spending review. Given the contributions of most right hon. and hon. Members, I do not think it appropriate to rehearse at great length why the Government have to take the action we are taking. I would just point out that we believe it necessary to deal with the largest deficit in our peacetime history, and that debt interest payments alone this year, at more than £40 billion, are far greater than the combined spend of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
We announced a reduction in police spending in the review because we believe that dealing with the deficit is essential, and that the police can and must pay their share—
The police must pay their share in reducing the deficit. Contrary to what the Opposition suggest—that a poor deal was secured for the police—the deal was rather better than expected in relation to non-protected Departments.
It is important to point out that the fact that the reduction in central Government spending on the police is 20% over four years—that is clear from the settlement—does not mean a 20% reduction in the amount of money that forces will have over the period. That is an immensely important point, but I am not sure that the Opposition have fully grasped it. There is a straightforward reason: forces do not raise all their money from central Government—on average, they raise getting on for a third of their money from central Government, or nearly £1 in every £3—and the money that they raise locally is not being cut.
As has been pointed out, that means that if we assume both the OBR forecast of reasonable rises in the precept based on—[Interruption.] The OBR forecast is based on the historic trend and the precept freeze, which the Government are funding next year. That reduces the cut in police force funding over the four-year period to 14% in real terms. The Opposition must explain why they believe that the 12% cut that they concede they would have made to policing, based on HMIC advice, would leave forces strong and secure—I assume that they would not otherwise have proposed that—but that a 14% cut is Armageddon, with all the consequences that the hon. Member for Gedling says will flow?
The difference between a 12% cut in real terms and a 14% cut at the end of the four-year period is £200 million, and the Government are making specific additional proposals, to which my hon. Friends referred, including the review of pay and conditions, which is being set up by Tom Winsor. We also expect the police to take part in the two-year pay freeze, subject to the agreement of the police negotiating board, which will close that £200 million gap. Labour Members simply have not answered the question. Why do they feel able to go around campaigning on, and scaremongering about, the impact of the spending reductions that forces are being asked to make? They are clearly and simply seeking to make political capital out of the situation, yet they would have cut the police budget themselves, in precisely the same order of magnitude as that which the Government have announced—the availability of resources to the police would have been precisely the same. They are perpetrating on the public a great fraud about their position.
I do not think that the Minister is deliberately trying to mislead the House, but is it not fair to say that the 12% cut that the former Home Secretary mentioned would be subject to exactly the same precept conditions, so it would have been reduced in the same way as he has reduced his 20% cut to 14%? He has therefore inadvertently misled the House on that point. Of course, he also completely misleads the House in relation to the west midlands—
I repeat that the Opposition proposed cuts of exactly the same magnitude. Indeed, the shadow Chancellor—when he was shadow Home Secretary—told the House on 8 September that as Home Secretary he had set out savings of £1.3 billion over the next four years, or about 12% of the Home Office budget. He also said that the HMIC report confirmed that, with a lot of effort, it would be possible to save 12% without affecting front-line services—[Interruption.] Those are not my words: they are the words of the shadow Chancellor.
As I pointed out on Monday, the shadow Home Secretary told the Home Affairs Committee seminar in Cannock on 22 November that this is a tighter environment for police spending and would be under any Government. Let us nail once and for all the idea that the Opposition would not have cut police spending. They would, and they have admitted it. The order of cuts that they would have made in police spending is exactly the same as we are asking the police to make now—
No, I am going to make some progress if the hon. Gentleman—whom I met this morning—will forgive me.
The hon. Member for Gedling referred to the letter that the Association of Police Authorities sent me asking for a re-profiling of the cuts. I note that it did not ask us to revisit the overall level of the cuts. I am afraid that it is not possible to revisit the spending review. The settlement, which did not presume that the deepest cut would be in the first year—[Interruption.] It will not be in the first year. The settlement fully takes into account the savings that we expect to be made as a consequence of the pay freeze that we expect the police to undertake, which the Opposition have unfortunately discounted in all their considerations.
One of the signatories to the letter is Ann Barnes, the independent chairman of Kent police authority, who is also, I believe, a vice-chairman of the Association of Police Authorities. She is no fan of the Government’s proposals to introduce directly elected police and crime commissioners. Nor, by the way, is she one of the hon. Gentleman’s friends who oppose the policy while secretly planning to run for office. Ann Barnes issued a news release about that letter in which she said—and it is important that hon. Members hear this—
“I do not think police capability in Kent will be compromised. Neighbourhood policing is the bedrock of policing in Kent and despite the reductions, we are confident that people will see little difference in the level of policing delivered locally.”
She was very much reflecting the views that have been put sensibly by my hon. Friends—who have been discussing these issues with their chief officers—that, across the country, chief constables are making every effort to protect front-line policing and that some are guaranteeing that they will protect neighbourhood policing. There is an enormous discrepancy between what chief officers are saying about the impact of these spending reductions on service delivery and the Opposition’s claims that there will be some catastrophic collapse in policing.
I will make a bit of progress because I am short of time, and then I will give way.
We are confident that these savings can be made because, in part, of the evidence of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, backed up the Audit Commission. HMIC has said that it is possible for forces to make savings of more than £1 billion a year—12% of the annual budget—through things such as improving productivity, cutting costs, sharing services and addressing savings in the back and middle offices of police forces. In addition, further savings can be realised through areas such as better procurement, although some of those savings were included in the HMIC report.
It is significant that the hon. Member for Gedling and the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) never refer to those issues. They never talk about the savings that could be made by forces, and they are simply unwilling to engage in the necessary debate about how to increase and improve deployment, given the fiscal constraints that confront us.
To avoid any further inadvertent misleading of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, first, that the HMIC report that refers to 12% deliverable cuts refers to cuts over four years and, secondly, that it refers to cuts in central Government grant? The HMIC report referred to 12% cuts in central Government grant; the Government are proposing a 20% cut in central Government grant. Will he confirm the difference in those figures and that that was what HMIC recommended?
I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman understood this. The HMIC report was not referring to grant; it was referring to the savings that can be made by police forces. I strongly advise him to read the report again. It is important to understand the savings that could be made by police forces. Hon. Members could then work together sensibly and constructively, as urged by the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East, to support forces in delivering savings.
Police forces and authorities spend about £2.8 billion every year on equipment, goods and services. Ending the practice of procuring things in 43 different ways could drive down the costs of goods, services and equipment by £200 million annually by the end of the spending review period. Furthermore, there is the issue of IT. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman knows how many different IT systems there are across our 43 forces. There are 2,000 different systems and 5,000 staff involved with them. The information systems improvement strategy programme on savings in IT could save another £180 million annually by transforming how police information systems are developed, procured and implemented. We are convinced that further savings could be made.
It is important for hon. Members to reflect on the fact that half of all spend by police forces is on the middle and back office. The people in those offices are not involved directly in crime fighting activity—although they do important things, such as providing direct support for the front line or keeping the organisation running. Not only is half of all spend made in those areas, but a quarter of all police officers—I am talking about sworn officers—are employed there. HMIC believes that significant savings can be made in the middle and back office by better management while, at the same time, protecting the front line.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the chief constable in the West Midlands force is looking at all those kinds of savings and more. However, he will also know that that will not do the job in West Midlands. Why not? That is because of the disproportionate reliance in West Midlands on the central Government grant, which we have urged the Minister to address time and time again. I am pleased that he is listening to us on that. However, I would like an assurance from the Minister today not only that he will listen, but that when he comes back to the House, he will do something about the problem.
I cannot pre-announce the grant determination. I met the hon. Gentleman this morning, and I will of course pay attention to the particular circumstances of West Midlands police if they are receiving less funding from local government. However, I would also like to draw his attention to what the chief constable of West Midlands has said:
“I remain absolutely confident that we will continue to protect and serve people in the West Midlands in the way they expect.”
That is a familiar message, because it is also the one being sent out by chief constables up and down the country, who are rising to the challenge of delivering services.
While the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood is here, I wonder whether he will take this opportunity to apologise for what he said on Monday, when he described the figure of 11% of force strength being visible and available to the public as a “smear” and a “corrupt and erroneous statistic”. That was a reference to the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. I find it difficult to believe how the right hon. Gentleman could describe something in such a report as a “corrupt and erroneous statistic” or say that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary was seeking to “smear” police forces.
There is an issue about the visibility and availability of police officers, and we have to address it. The report said that
“general availability, in which we include neighbourhood policing and response, is relatively low. Several factors have combined to produce this ‘thin blue line’ of which shift patterns, risk management, bureaucracy and specialisation are the most significant”—
bureaucracy being one of the factors that needs to be addressed. The real question for this House is why, at a time when we had achieved record resourcing for policing, a record number of police officers and a record size of the police work force, we had visibility and availability at only about 11% of force strength. I agree with the inspectorate of constabulary that that figure is too low. We need to have a sensible debate about how we can address shift patterns, bureaucracy and the drift of officers into specialist units, so that we can protect that visibility and availability, which all my hon. Friends—indeed, all Members of the House—want to improve.
I will happily take this opportunity to say that I wrote to Sir Denis O’Connor yesterday on the matter, and I copied the letter to the Policing Minister. In that letter I say that I have not criticised—and will not criticise—the 11% statistic, which was drawn up by HMIC. What I have consistently criticised is the way in which that statistic has been used, in a misleading and smearing way, by Ministers—the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Policing Minister—to do down the important work of the police. The Minister says that 11% of the time is spent on visible policing, with the other 89% wasted on bureaucracy. That excludes people working on organised crime, in CID, on domestic violence, or on child abuse. That is the smear.
Also, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I just read out the HMIC report, which says:
“A re-design of the system…has the potential”—
Order. I am sorry to have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he was making an intervention. I think that he has made his point, and the intervention was getting a little long. It would be very helpful if when putting forcefully the arguments on either side of the House, all Members could avoid casting any aspersions on the correctness of another person’s view.
He has been caught out. I note that, in his letter to the chief inspector of constabulary, the right hon. Gentleman did not apologise for describing the chief inspector’s report as a “smear” or “corrupt and erroneous”, but that is what he said on Monday. I hesitate, after Monday, to advise hon. Members about using their words carefully, but the right hon. Gentleman should learn that he needs to choose his words more carefully when talking about the inspector’s report. I am sure that he will do so in future.
It is essential that we address the bureaucracy—
I should like to quote from the HMIC report, because the Minister disputed the 12% figure that I used in relation to central Government funding. The report stated:
“A re-design of the system…has the potential, at best, to save 12% of central government funding, while maintaining police availability. A cut beyond 12% would almost certainly reduce police availability”.
The 12% referred to central Government funding, so the Minister was wrong.
No, the Audit Commission and HMIC said that the savings that could be made available to police officers were more than £1 billion a year—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood is in no position to criticise anyone for misquoting people—[Interruption.] No, I did not.
The Opposition simply do not focus on the importance of reducing bureaucracy or of changing shift patterns. I want to give two quick examples. The action that we are taking to scrap stop forms and to limit stop-and-search reporting, with all the unnecessary bureaucracy that that has imposed upon officers, will save 800,000 hours of police time. Yesterday, the Assistant Commissioner of the Met, Ian McPherson, told the Greater London authority in an evidence session at which I was present that changing shift patterns in the Met will effectively increase staffing levels by an equivalent of 20% on Friday and Saturday evenings. There are things that we can do to improve the efficiency and deployment of police officers within the availability of constrained resources. That is why it is so important that we continue to reduce interference from the point of view of central Government, and why we have scrapped the remaining targets and the pledge. It is also why we intend to give more discretion to police forces so that they can make these important management decisions.
I want quickly to comment on what hon. Members have said about the use of the A19 procedure to enforce retirement for officers who have served for more than 30 years. There are only 3,000 officers to whom A19 might apply, out of a total in England and Wales of 143,000. It is not the ideal procedure, which is why we have set up a review of pay and conditions by Tom Winsor, which will report in February. It is important that we address issues such as the number of officers on restricted duties—more than 5,500—and the institutionalisation of overtime, when overtime costs are still in the region of £400 million a year. These are all areas in which considerable savings could be delivered to help to protect front-line policing.
Finally, I want to address the issue of police numbers and crime. I want to put on record what I actually said in the interview on “The World this Weekend”, which, by the way, was heavily edited. Nevertheless, as stated in the transcript of the interview that was broadcast, when asked about the link between reducing crime and police numbers, what I actually said was this:
“I don’t think that anyone, and no respectable academic would make a simple link between the increase in the numbers of police officers and what has happened to crime. There is no such link.”
The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood is not stupid, and he will know that I was quite clearly referring to that simple link. That was my point and I believe it was a correct point—one also made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). It was also made by one of the world’s greatest crime fighters, Bill Bratton, who was quoted earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley). If hon. Members believe that there is such a simple link, perhaps they can explain why police numbers have increased in Sweden and Spain, but crime has increased, too. Perhaps they can also explain why police numbers in the United States have fallen, yet crime has fallen, too.
It is obvious to anybody who thinks about it that there is not a simple link, and that what we should be concerned about is how officers are deployed, whether they are available and visible to the public and whether they are there on the streets when the public want them. What therefore matters is not the total size of the police work force, but the efficiency and effectiveness of their deployment and how much they are tied up by bureaucracy. That is an issue that the Opposition simply will not address.
Opposition Members talked about the cost of police and crime commissioners. May I point out that the £100 million costing by the hon. Member for Gedling for police and crime commissioners was for a period beyond that covered by the spending review. The annual additional cost of police and commissioners is reflected only in the election cost and there will be no greater cost for the police authorities themselves. The money will not come out of police force budgets. It represents £12.5 million a year on average—less than 0.1% of police spend. Pointing out that an election will cost too much money and should not be held in the first place is not a good argument for any hon. Member to advance against a democratic reform. That is a very weak and poor argument.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) that we are determined to ensure a safe Olympics and that we will make further announcements about the police funding for the Olympics in due course. I would be happy to meet him to discuss any concerns about that.
While Labour Members continue to play politics, continue to criticise cuts, even though they would have made them themselves, and continue to criticise democratic accountability, even though they would have introduced it themselves, Government Members know that we must tackle the deficit. It is in our national interest to do so, not least for the sake of the future funding of police officers generally and of individual officers. We are determined to make the savings by reducing bureaucracy, giving forces more freedom and driving out cost. In so doing, we are sure that we can protect the front line and the visible and available policing that the public value. The public want to know that the police will be there for them, and we are absolutely determined that they will be.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54(4)).
Department for International Development