It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Crausby, and to see so many colleagues from north Wales here to debate this important issue.
It is not often that I can begin such a debate by saying that we can learn something from the Welsh Conservatives, but today I am privileged to be able to do so. The Welsh Conservatives have cancelled their Llandudno conference this year, apparently because of security costs. I am not sure whether they think extra security is needed to hold back the crowds or to ensure that none of their politicians get out to hear what local people think. Wherever they plan to skulk off to instead, I hope they face the full weight of the law for non-payment of the £20,000 that the Imperial hotel is likely to lose because of their bad business practice in cancelling so late. Leaving aside their cowboy capitalism—I see that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) does not wish to intervene—the Conservatives’ decision has betrayed a fact they have been trying to deny since the general election, which is that good security costs money, and without enough funding, security will suffer.
That principle brings me to today’s debate, ahead of next week’s vote on more cuts to the North Wales police force. The first duty of any Government is to protect their citizens, or to put in place the brave men and women who do that for us. We all rely on our police forces to keep us safe, and we in north Wales are extremely lucky to have an excellent force, which provides a top-class, professional service to our communities. Our police force, however, is being let down, and law and order—cyfraith a threfn—is being woefully let down in the process.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary was asked to advise the Government on possible efficiency savings in the police force, and said that
“cost cutting and improvements in productivity could, if relentlessly pursued, generate a saving of 12% in central government funding without affecting police availability—but only if there was a fundamental ‘re-design’ of the system”.
Despite that advice, the Government are pursuing a 20% cut in police funding, stripping the police of 8% more of their funding than the experts said could be removed safely.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. Is it not the case that the Labour Welsh Government are cutting funding to police forces by 6.3%, compared with 6.9% from central Government? Would she defend that difference?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s crib sheet comment, but I remind him that the Welsh Government, who are dealing with a very difficult situation from the UK Government, are increasing the number of police community support officers by 500. I urge him to reflect on that. I also note his non-comment on his party’s lack of funding in his own constituency, Aberconwy, thanks to the cancellation of its Llandudno conference.
Despite HMIC’s advice, the Government are pursuing a 20% cut in police funding. On the ground, that means that since the last general election, North Wales police has lost 85 police officers, or more than 5% of its whole force. By 2015, it is forecast that more than 360 staff could go—179 officers and 186 civilian staff. After years of steadily rising numbers of police officers, so many are now being cut that already we have fewer officers in north Wales than we did a decade ago. Meanwhile, the population of north Wales has increased by over 12,000.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case, which exposes the Government’s ludicrous argument that somehow they can cut some mythical back room—and even the middle room, whatever that is—without affecting front-line services. In north Wales, front-line police officers are being cut.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, and I will go on later to mention some aspects of policing, such as forensics, that are covered by the description of back-room policing.
Ministers say repeatedly that police chiefs are the only ones responsible for cutting back on numbers. Despite the inspectorate’s advice, they say:
“By the end of the spending review period, the police will still have the resources to do their important work.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 September 2011; Vol. 730, c. WA28.]
In fact, no fewer than nine times in the past six months, Ministers have given the same answer to various questions in Parliament about falling police numbers. The mantra goes a bit like this:
“we have set a challenging but manageable funding settlement for the police service. It is for the chief constable and the police authority in each force to determine the number of police officers that are deployed given the available resources.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 16.]
Perhaps we will hear that again from the Minister today, to round it off to a nice, even and decimal 10.
In my constituency, the practical effect of the Government’s policy in terms of reduction is that dedicated community police officers, who have been hugely effective and successful in policing local areas, have been taken away from particular geographical areas, which is causing great concern among councillors and having a huge impact on the ground. Will my hon. Friend urge the Government to look again at the impact, not in the back room but on the streets?
I agree totally with my hon. Friend and share his concern about the impact in Wrexham county borough.
If the Government know how police chiefs can keep all their people and premises on 20% less money, with a rising population and fewer back-office resources, I hope that the Minister will tell us. North Wales police knows its own organisation’s needs better than anyone, and it has made it clear that it cannot keep all its officers under the budget cut. Our excellent chief constable Mark Polin made his position perfectly clear, saying:
“If I am going to keep the organisation in balance, we are going to have to lose a significant number of staff…I have no wish to reduce any of our staff, but I have got to. I have no choice whatsoever”.
No choice whatsoever—Ministers know that that is true. Now is the time for them to stop passing the buck and take responsibility for the chaos that they have created.
North Wales’ policing needs will be hit particularly hard because of the rural nature of our area and the loss, on top of the 20% budget cut, of the payment that used to be awarded to help cope with that. One hidden change brought in alongside the headline cuts to budgets is the merging of the rural police grant into the core settlement. It is effectively being abolished for police forces such as North Wales, which used to benefit from it directly.
Our rural communities have specific policing needs, and the rural grant was introduced by the Labour Government to address them. A sparse and scattered population cannot be policed in the same way as an urban centre. Police have to cover huge distances, incurring extra costs in fuel or infrastructure such as buildings that urban police forces need not budget for. That is why the Home Office’s police allocation formula working group considered and rejected the recommendation that the rural grant should be rolled in with other categories of grant and effectively lost. Again, however, that expert opinion was ignored, and north Wales will have to do without.
Why does it matter? Let me give an example. Last year, part of my constituency suffered some worrying arson-related attacks on cars. That kind of crime requires exactly the same kinds of police resources in a rural village as it would if it happened in an inner-city area, but rural police are spread more thinly and need to travel further to reach the trouble when it happens. No amount of so-called efficiency savings can mitigate the geography, unless Ministers would like all of my constituents and others in north Wales to relocate together to one place in order to make things easier. The Countryside Alliance rightly makes the point that the proposed levels of police cuts would be “a free-for-all” for those who would commit crime in the countryside.
I am delighted to see the Labour-led Welsh Government fund an additional 500 community support officers across Wales, but the loss of the rural police grant is a double whammy for us. The official figures show that vehicle crime is up in north Wales by 84% over the past year—from about 130 incidents in November 2010 to 250 in November 2011. Burglary and other crimes, including theft, shoplifting, criminal damage and public disorder have also increased during that time frame.
I am sure that the hon. Lady will acknowledge that crime is a reality in every part of the United Kingdom. She mentions statistics regarding increases of burglaries and robberies in Wales, and sex crime is also an issue. Does she agree that we as Members of Parliament need to remember that behind every one of these crimes are horrifying stories of lives that have been blighted—many of them changed, never to be the same again—and that it is therefore necessary to have the police available to stop crime?
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Throughout the ’90s and the past 10 years, there was a consensus among all the political parties on the need to confront crime by increasing the number of officers. Is it not a profound shame that that consensus has been broken, and that the impact that that will have on individual people’s lives is being ignored by this Government?
In a moment—I must make progress. The offences that I have listed are exactly the kinds that tend to increase when police numbers fall. HMIC published research last summer that acknowledged that lots of factors affect crime rates, but it also stated that
“there is relatively strong evidence for the potential of an effect of police numbers on crime, particularly with regard to property and other acquisitive forms of offending.”
It also noted:
“Research suggests that frontline officer numbers are one factor in a force’s ability to fight crime.”
In north Wales, official statistics obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) show that since 2001, crime broadly decreased as officer numbers rose. It is good common sense—more police officers can fight more crime—but, sadly, the Government parties seem determined to ignore the links. Their line is to quote one sentence from last year’s Home Affairs Committee report. I suspect that the Minister may wish to do that today, so I will save him the task. It says that
“there is no simple relationship between numbers of police officers and levels of crime”,
but that line has been carefully cherry-picked. The rest of the report is full of evidence to the contrary. In the same paragraph as the quotation that the Government like, the Committee offers a clarification:
“However, the loss of posts will have an impact on the range of services that the police provide and the way in which they are provided.”
The report also notes the evidence of Mr McKeever, the chairman of the Police Federation, who said in his evidence that
“there is a clear trend in the relationship between police officer numbers and crime.”
The report also references Councillor Burns-Williamson, deputy chair of the Association of Police Authorities, who told the inquiry:
“My guess is that, given the cuts over the four-year period…probably crime levels will start to rise.”
Elsewhere, even the Conservative Mayor of London agrees that “numbers matter”.
I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that subject—something told me it would appear. The position is clear. Before the last election, the Labour Government made it plain that, in common with the police, they would agree to 12% cuts in order to reduce back-office costs. I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to what a future Labour Government may have to do with the so-called deficit plans of this Government, which appear to mean total cuts but very little growth. It would be dishonest of me to offer a prediction in such circumstances, but let me be clear: if there was a Labour Government in office now, we would be sticking to 12%. The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in what he says from his central office crib sheet.
Those calculations of 12% were given at a time when the economy was improving—GDP was going up, unemployment was going down and confidence was going up. At that point, things were on the mend. Since this Government have been in power, they have added an extra £158 billion to the bill. We have to recognise that.
That is absolutely correct. There is no question about what the previous Labour Government did, or about what a Labour Government would do if they were in power now.
The Government speak about back-office costs, but they seem to forget that forensics, family liaison and call-handlers, among others, fall within that definition. Surely no one in the 21st century can define front-line policing as a few Dixon of Dock Greens plodding amiably around the patch. In fact, it seems that everyone, except for the Ministers in charge of the policy, agrees that there is some link between the number of officers available and crime levels. In other words, fewer police officers will find it more difficult to police crime.
If crime increases in the coming months and years, I am sure that it will be blamed on snow, an extra bank holiday, the eurozone or, for all we know, on Britain not quite making it in the Eurovision song contest. The victims of crime, however, will ask why the Government did not listen when the experts told them that a 20% cut was too much. We need to act now to stop that happening.
The only officers whom the Minister seems to think are important are the ones who do not yet exist—the elected police commissioners. There is not one shred of evidence that imposing these outside managers on police forces will cut crime by one iota. The policy is a gimmick, pure and simple. It is totally unfounded on fact or previous best practice. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Police Authorities of Wales has recommended that the establishment of police commissioners—or, in their words, the “bureaucratic web” and a
“poor model of police governance”—
should be deferred. The Government, however, continue to press forward regardless.
The plan will not come free. Incredibly, even though North Wales police, like other police forces, is losing police officers because it has not been given enough funds to pay for them, the Government have still found £100 million—the cost of 600 full-time officers—to pay for these new positions. They argue that the plan will connect the public to the police service, but the idea that the public see more elected officials—bureaucrats by any other name—as the answer to crime, rather than more policemen and women, is totally absurd.
The creation of the new commissioner posts will bring politics into policing like never before, providing yet another difficulty and distraction for chief constables trying to do their jobs to protect law-abiding citizens in the midst of a funding crisis. Operational independence will be threatened as electioneering takes the place of long-term planning. Collaboration between forces could be threatened as commissioners from different political parties prefer to compete with each other, with an eye on the next election. That is not the way to run a police force. I imagine that most of our political parties will field candidates for the positions and that some of the victors will do the best job they can if they are elected, but that is not the point. The point is that the policy itself is a total shambles.
Next week, Parliament will be asked to vote on the police grant report, which will seek to cut a further 7% from North Wales police’s budget—£3.4 million. I see that the Minister appears to be working his electronic device. Perhaps he could throw this calculation in: £3.4 million. North Wales cannot afford these cuts. If we want to support our police and our communities, we must stand up against the reckless cuts that the Government are trying to push through. It would be totally irresponsible to go ahead when officer numbers have already had to fall and when communities are losing their police stations. Instead, our officers should get the backing they deserve and the funding they need to stay in their jobs and do them without interference.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us why he thinks he knows better than Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, better than the Association of Police Authorities and better than the Police Federation of England and Wales. I hope that he will tell us what he thinks North Wales police should do differently to avoid losing officers, how they can make our large rural areas more efficient to police and what possible reason Members have for voting through a further 7% budget cut next week. However, I hope even more that Ministers will listen to the evidence and hear how it affects north Wales and other parts of the UK, and that they will have the courage to think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing the debate.
I am still hoping that the debate will be an opportunity not for a display of new Labour, but for a display of new realism. Perhaps the hon. Lady might like to explain why the Welsh Assembly has cut police funding. I understand that the Labour party supports the budget reductions because its economic credibility depends on it and it cannot guarantee to reverse any of the funding cuts that the Government are going to make. Yet, at the same time, Labour opposes every step that the coalition Government take.
In fact, we have heard in the debate today that one of the cuts Labour Members think they can support is a 12% reduction in the police budget. If that is the case, perhaps the hon. Lady or the official spokesman for the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) when he responds, would like to tell hon. Members exactly how many officers that will equate to, because the hon. Lady is in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks that a 12% cut does not relate to a reduction in staffing numbers.
Just to clarify the position for the right hon. Gentleman, the budget for the Welsh Assembly is provided by the UK Government, who cut the budget. The Welsh Assembly has less money because the UK Government cut the funding. That is why there are cuts taking place in the Welsh Assembly.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is rather better versed in matters in Carshalton than he is in those in Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) has made clear, the reason for that situation is a reduction in funding from Westminster. I also made it clear that, partly to mitigate what has happened, the Welsh Assembly Government have increased the number of PCSOs by 500. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of wishing for a new realism and a lack of partisanship but, quite honestly, I find his comments totally partisan, totally unhelpful and showing a total lack of knowledge of the people of north Wales.
I am very happy to respond to that; indeed, I have responded to similar points in a number of debates since the new Government were elected. The financial circumstances do not allow such pledges to be funded. It is as simple as that. What this discussion has revealed is that we need to have an important debate—perhaps if we set aside partisanship, we could have that debate—about using police officers effectively. For example, if we recruit more police officers and put them in a call centre, it might add to police officer numbers, but it does not necessarily equate to a more effective police force.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I need to make a little progress, having taken four or five interventions already.
I hope that this morning’s debate will not be totally partisan. Clearly, there are some very challenging circumstances for the police in north Wales. I understand that, prior to the election, they had lost 85 officers and that, under the previous Government, there were some issues that needed to be addressed. There has since been a further reduction in officer numbers. As the hon. Lady said, I acknowledge that, for rural forces, there are clearly bigger challenges than for forces in urban areas, where, for instance, it is easier to call on support from neighbouring forces because the distances are smaller. I acknowledge those points.
In those circumstances, it was right that the chief constable, Mark Polin, undertook the reorganisation proposals that he has instigated in terms of setting up the hubs, reducing senior management numbers and merging three divisions into one. It is perfectly appropriate that, having undertaken that reorganisation, the matter should be looked at again to see what the impact has been. We need to consider whether such an approach has been effective and whether it has perhaps had unintended consequences that the chief constable may be able to address.
In the past, the chief constable has criticised partnerships, so I hope that he will not go down the line of saying that partnerships get in the way of the police working effectively. Certainly, my experience is that partnerships—particularly those with the local authority, the voluntary sector and other partners—are an effective way of reducing crime in an area, not a hindrance. I do not consider officers who are allocated to a partnership role as being officers who are badly allocated in that respect.
Another point that the chief constable’s review may touch on is the issue of overtime payments because, clearly, there has been an increase in north Wales. I accept that there will be circumstances in which overtime payments allow officers to be specially tasked for a particular initiative. However, at the same time, there needs to be a balance between an acceptable reliance on overtime and police officer numbers.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I have no experience of living in north Wales. I am not purporting to have the very local knowledge that she and other Welsh Members here have. Clearly, that is not the case. If she takes part in a debate about London policing matters in the future, I may throw that comment back at her to see what her experience has been and whether she has lived in London, as I have for the past 30 years. She may be able to comment in some detail on that matter.
I want to move on to what might in the longer term present a solution to these problems. I—and I think many hon. Members present—would like the Welsh Assembly to take on greater responsibility for policing and justice issues. I see that some Members are not in agreement with me, but others may well be. In the longer term, if Wales wants to have total control of its policing and therefore have responsibility for deciding what the appropriate level of policing is and what percentage of its budget should be allocated to policing issues, that is an ambition I support.
Clearly, I accept that there would be enormous challenges to achieving that and that we would have to try to unpick the funding arrangements that apply to policing. I, and many hon. Members here, know that that is extremely controversial. Depending on which part of the country someone comes from, the funding arrangements either work for or against them. Clearly, that issue would require long and detailed negotiations. However, in the longer term, I cannot see any other solution to providing the policing that Wales feels is acceptable for Wales. As long as the UK Government—in whatever shape or form—continue to provide funding for policing, we will always have rather sterile debates about central Government not allocating enough money, and the Welsh Assembly not being able to deploy the resources that it would like to deploy.
On that final point, which I hope will provide a longer term solution to these funding issues, I conclude my remarks. As I said, I hope that this debate will not be entirely partisan. I had 13 years’ experience in opposition and I always felt that it was clearly my role to attack the previous Government, which I did, hopefully with some vigour. At the same time, I always felt that as an Opposition Member it was incumbent on me to reflect the reality of the circumstances, and deploy some solutions for the Government to consider.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing time for this important debate.
I know a thing or two about north Wales, as we all do in the Chamber, unlike the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). I begin by quoting that esteemed organ of truth, the Daily Post:
“Overtime spending by North Wales Police rocketed to £3.6m in 2011. The news comes as the force struggles to keep as many front-line positions as possible intact while facing the need to make major budget cuts under the national public spending squeeze.”
It then refers to overtime payment soaring—
“from £3,591 in 2010 to £5,314”—
in one month. It goes on:
“A Freedom of Information request revealed that the force had increased its spending from £2.7m in 2010 to £3.6m in 2011”
on overtime. Perhaps that is an inevitable consequence of having too few officers on the ground. I can understand that fully. I am a huge supporter of the North Wales police. Close members of my family have been police officers and I am not here to detract from the work that they do, which is often dangerous and thankless. Without them, heaven knows where we would be.
Nine months ago, the chief constable of North Wales police announced that there would be a radical shake-up of policing in north Wales. There would be a given number of hubs—nine in all—from which rapid response vehicles and personnel would be dispatched when the need arose. The chief constable vowed that emergency calls to serious crime would not be compromised after the changes, but he warned that it was inevitable that police reaction to some low-level crime would be affected, as they coped with losing 121 uniformed officers and at least the same number of civilian staff. On the nine response hubs, he said:
“These will not improve response times but will keep them the same.”
That is not even an assurance that there would be an improvement in response times; there would merely be an effort to keep them the same. The hubs may be perfectly acceptable in areas where travelling is reasonably easy. I am sure that those areas bordering the A55 think it is a useful idea, given that a vehicle exhibiting blue lights can travel a long distance on that road in a relatively short time.
The hon. Gentleman refers to Rhyl. That also surprises me. There has been a fairly high crime rate there for some years. Of course, we understand that this policy will be reviewed in the coming weeks. I hope sincerely that those who will be making the decisions will have some regard to what is being argued here today. I support fully what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said.
The right hon. Gentleman has a deep knowledge of north-west Wales and, indeed, Anglesey. The creation of hubs has actually led to the closure of local police stations, so policing is not even coming nearer to the people; it is moving away from local communities. Does he agree that that is an issue?
I agree fully. My late father was a station officer once on Anglesey, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Clearly, things have changed and the nature of policing has changed, but he is right. There is now a shake-up that has the potential to be very damaging, particularly in rural areas, as the hon. Member for Clwyd South pointed out. Further west, in my constituency of Dwyfor Meirionnydd, this policy does not make a great deal of sense, and there have been complaints about it in the past few months. For example, Pwllheli town council has written to the chief constable about its concerns, and I support fully its contentions. Furthermore, members of Tywyn town council have likewise had cause to complain, and I understand fully their reason for doing so as well.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. I congratulate him on making a very thoughtful speech about the management of North Wales police, an issue that is hugely important to us all. He is clearly unhappy with the arrangements that have been proposed for north Wales. Does he agree that this is exactly the sort of issue that will feature in the campaign for the election of a police commissioner? The public will then have the chance to express their view in the campaign.
Indeed, but if there is no money in the kitty, it is a waste of time discussing it. The budget cuts are the problem—the core problem is that we are all meant to do much more with less. If there is no money to pay for it, it does not make any sense, however clever any candidate might be, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I referred to Tywyn, which is a town of approximately 2,500 inhabitants. There is now one community officer stationed there. The nearest hub would be Dolgellau, which is some 18 to 19 rather tortuous miles away. I wonder what the result would be if there were a major disturbance in the town, leaving only one officer to deal with it for at least 20 to 30 minutes before back-up arrived—it does not bear thinking about. It is no wonder that the Police Federation in north Wales is gravely concerned about the situation. It is unfair on individual police officers who face a difficult and dangerous job at the best of times, but it is equally unfair on the citizens of Tywyn and Meirionnydd, who pay the same level of taxes as everybody else and can therefore reasonably expect the same level of service.
The same is true of Pwllheli, where there are approximately 2,760 inhabitants. The nearest hub is Porthmadog. Again, it is a difficult drive to get there quickly, but the situation in Dwyfor is possibly even worse when we consider that the hub is meant to service Aberdaron at the tip of the Llyn peninsula. With the best will in the world, I do not know how any rapid response vehicle is possibly expected to reach Aberdaron from Porthmadog in less than 40 minutes. The situation is therefore critical, and we are almost waiting for something drastic to happen before the plan is scrapped. I will also mention the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, which has again been denuded of police officers. Again, a town of 3,600 inhabitants is to be served by the hub in Porthmadog.
This looks like an exercise that has been dreamt up in an office, rather than by anyone who knows the geography of north-west Wales generally, and of Dwyfor Meirionnydd in particular. I am pleased to be able to use this debate to voice deeply held worries and concerns on behalf of my constituents. I understand that the scheme was put in place for a trial period and is now due for review. I urge the chief constable and the police authority to reconsider it urgently in light of the fact that, to my knowledge, on some weekends, the old county of Meirionnydd may have as few as three police officers on duty in the winter months. In the summer months, the population rises eight to tenfold. This is unacceptable and dangerous during the winter. It is dangerous during the summer—I would say scandalous. The authority must go back to the drawing board and reconsider the plans.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
This has been an interesting debate, but it did start out in an extremely partisan manner. Indeed, many hoteliers in Llandudno in my constituency would be amazed at the glee with which their loss of business is seen by Labour Opposition Members. To return to the issue that we are debating today, we need to consider the comments made by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). The new plans have had teething problems. They are clearly not working in his constituency, and I accept his comments. But it must be stated that the chief constable’s decision to change the way that the service operated in north Wales has been positive in some parts. In my constituency—I have visited the police station in Llandudno and Llanrwst, for example—the response to the changes has been positive, with the view of the officers being that they are spending less time on paperwork and getting more support across north Wales. That is important, because previously north Wales was, for some bizarre reason, split into three almost independent sections—east, central and west—and little or no support passed between them.
The changes have ensured that the police are able to serve north Wales as an entity. From my position, representing Aberconwy in the centre region, there has been an improvement, with support officers coming from Corwen, for example, to support officers from Llanrwst. We should welcome that effort to ensure that we make best use of the resources. I pay tribute to the chief constable, who is doing a difficult task in trying to deal with cuts to the budget, which are not being denied by Labour Members. We have heard the shadow Chancellor comment that he cannot guarantee a reversal of any cuts. Yet in a debate such as this we get opportunistic chants from Opposition Members claiming that things would be significantly different if they were in power.
It is important that we consider the way that police numbers grew in north Wales during Labour’s time in office. It is true that the number of police numbers in north Wales increased by 13% between 1997 and 2000—I pay tribute to the Labour Government for increasing police numbers—but in the same period the number of civilian officers working for north Wales police increased by 84%, so it is debatable whether resources were put on to the front line.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman says that the increase in resources is necessarily the reason why North Wales police have performed well. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) said that higher police numbers equated to falling crime. It is tempting to say that that must be so, but during Labour’s time in office there was a significant period when the number of police officers in north Wales increased but crime increased and a period when the number of police officers declined and crime declined.
There is a perception that more officers working will have an impact on crime levels, but statistics from the Labour party’s period in office do not necessarily support that view. My view is that the use made of those officers is just as important as the number of officers. Similarly, getting rid of waste and double practices, such as having three areas in north Wales that did not work together, is just as important as the numbers.
The number of police officers in north Wales has been reduced by 108, according to statistics that I have seen from North Wales police, but the chief constable has also said that it is looking to recruit an extra 72 officers in the next financial year. There is a tendency for the Opposition to portray everything as bad and fragile, when in the year to September 2011 there was a 1% decline in the total number of crimes committed in north Wales.
It is dispiriting for officers in north Wales, who are working hard to try to deal with these issues, to be told that the police service in north Wales is failing, when we have seen a decline in police numbers.
Again, I am surprised by that comment, because throughout this debate I have heard Opposition Members saying that we must put the resources on the front line. There is a choice to be made. If the number of officers increased by 13% in the Labour years, is there a justification for an increase of 84% in non-police officer staff at that point? That question should be asked. This is not an attack, in any way, shape or form, on any individuals working within the system, but we need to ask whether an 84% increase in those numbers was justified, when the number of front-line police officers increased by only 13%.
The hon. Gentleman is using selective statistics. In addition to the police officers going, the number of police community support officers was increased. People wanted policing in the community. As a consequence of investing in those PCSOs in the communities, crime came down in local communities across north Wales.
I accept that comment. But if we include PCSOs and special constables in the totals, North Wales police are better served now than they were during the period the Labour party were in government.
It is important that we discuss the context of this debate, which is that we are facing a severe financial crisis. This Government are willing to get to grips with that issue. The chief constable in north Wales is willing to challenge the way that things worked in the past and to take difficult decisions to try to ensure that the allocated funding goes further.
It is important to mention the unacceptable degree of hypocrisy from Opposition Members on funding. They say that a 6.9% cut from Westminster is unacceptable in this financial year, but that a cut of 6.3% from the Welsh Assembly can be defended on the basis that the Assembly’s funding has also been reduced. This is the crux of the issue. Choices and priorities have to be made by the Government. We see in the Opposition, and in the performance of the Welsh Assembly, a complete and utter abdication of responsibility and willingness to take hard, difficult decisions.
When I get a full explanation from the shadow Chancellor about why and how he can save the North Wales police service, although he will not reverse a single cut that we have made, I will take the arguments of Opposition Members more seriously.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby.
Two hon. Members have mentioned the Conservative party’s cancellation of the Llandudno conference on security grounds and that, somehow, Labour Members are gleeful about that. I spent Saturday with my mother-in-law in Llandudno, helping the local economy and the local hotels and hostelries. I put my money where my mouth is, in many ways.
I am proud of Labour’s record on policing over the past 13 years. It can be said—hon. Members will know—that I have not always been on message and did not always agree with what the previous Government said, but on law and order they did what the people wanted. Every constituency Member of Parliament was asked about reducing crime and improving resources for policing in their area, and the Labour Government delivered. Those extra resources were funded in the communities. For the first time, we saw police support officers on the beat, making a difference in many areas, including prevention, detection and processing crimes. The whole police family was strengthened and one complemented the other.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) tried to pick off civilians versus front-line police officers, because the police family was delivering for communities. The back-room people have an important role to play in processing crimes to ensure that we get criminals into the courts. They are not semi-detached from front-line policing; they complement it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is not in his seat at the moment, said rightly that under the previous Government—I am proud of this—north-west Wales had the highest detection rates not only in Wales but in the United Kingdom. A large rural area is difficult to police—the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and the hon. Member for Aberconwy know the area that I am talking about—but the police overcame those difficulties and, in a rural area, reduced crime faster and kept it down lower than in many parts of the UK. It was no surprise that that happened because of the increase in resources, which communities were asking for.
High and low-level crimes were increasing and the record of the previous Conservative Government—[Interruption.] The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), said that he was not being partisan, but he made probably the most partisan speech this morning and said that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), whom I congratulate, knew nothing about London policing and that he would take exception if she intervened. She was a London councillor in the borough of Southwark for many years and was involved in the crime and disorder partnership in Peckham, so she knows a little bit more about London policing than the hon. Gentleman knows about north Wales policing. The title of this debate is “Policing in North Wales”, so my hon. Friend is more than qualified to talk about that.
There would have been cuts whichever Government were in office, but they would have been far more selective had there been a Labour Government. Our manifesto commitment was to prioritise policing and to protect its funding—the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington smiles at that, but he wanted an extra 3,000 police officers in his manifesto although, along with student tuition fees, that commitment was dropped immediately. The economic climate is difficult, and deficit reduction and bringing down debt are important, but politics is about priorities, and priorities are different between the parties. Before we went into the general election, the priorities of the Liberal Democrats were similar to those of the Labour party. The Labour party in government would have taken different decisions and, I believe, would have strengthened policing and kept the levels of crime down, though, yes, they would have had to get rid of some posts.
I want to talk about north Wales in particular. We have seen a huge reduction in central funds for policing, but I want to remind Members in the Chamber that much of the extra policing that occurred in north Wales between 2001 and 2010 was from the council tax payer. The controversial chief constable, with the police authority, put up the precept in order to have extra police on the beat. The choice of the local police authority was backed by the people, and each of the town and community councils put up their police precept to pay for what was originally known as the 10p bobby. Those extra police have been taken away by central Government, which is an important point.
Absolutely. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have changed their view. Priorities have to be set, and our priority would have been to keep policing levels high.
We have seen central Government cuts, but that cut has been across the board. We paid for the extra policing, but central Government have robbed it from us. We are seeing a depletion in the police whom we, the council tax payers of north Wales, specifically paid for. We took a decision in that period that other local police authorities in Wales did not, yet the cut across the board of up to 20% will affect north Wales as much as other police authorities in Wales and England. That is grossly unfair to the taxpayers and constituents of north Wales. That important point is often overlooked.
I am pleased that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice is present to respond, but I would have liked to see the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who has certain responsibilities. He was a doughty campaigner for increased funding in north Wales, including a prison for north Wales, because he wanted to see more police on the beat and more criminals in jail—in local jails—and he and I stood shoulder to shoulder to get an extra prison in Wales located in north Wales. Now, apparently, he is no longer standing up for north Wales but for the Westminster Government cuts. It is a shame that he is not in the Chamber, because I would have liked to look him in the eye and told him that myself, but I will give way to his spokesperson.
I always very much enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s speeches and take great note of them. The one difficulty that I have in listening is the seemingly total blank refusal to accept that there should be a reduction in the cost of policing in north Wales. Is his party’s policy that there should be no cuts in the cost of policing? What impact will that have on other budgets, bearing in mind that the shadow Chancellor has accepted that the cuts proposed by the current Government cannot be reversed because of the economic situation?
I am certainly not saying that there should be no cuts. As the hon. Member for Aberconwy has said, there was without doubt a reduction in police numbers between 2008 and 2010, but that was achieved through efficiency savings. Also, the police authority in my area made it clear what it was doing, and the local people supported it because they understood it. What local people do not accept—if the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is not aware of this, he needs to talk to people in his constituency—is the across-the-board cut to policing just because of the Government deficit reduction plan, coupling the savage cuts with police cuts. People wanted to make a choice, and that is the difficulty.
I will deal with the shadow Chancellor, because obviously the papers from the Conservative Whips keep rolling out that line. What he said was that in 2015 he will be left with higher debts and higher borrowing than we would have had in 2010, which will be a difficult situation and he will have to make difficult choices. However, I assure the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that I will be fighting within my party to ensure that policing has a priority. I ask him and the hon. Member for Aberconwy to do the same, because rather than having this knockabout, they should stand up for policing in their local communities.
Front-line police officers, yes, but the total amount including PCSOs and special constables rose. The police authority made that choice, which the people of north Wales accepted because they saw extra policing on the street. Prevention of crime and reducing the fear of crime are as important as police officers tackling criminals, and the Government have overlooked that with their “one-cap-fits-all” cuts throughout the country.
Opposition politicians are not the only ones whingeing. The Police Federation chairman has said that we are going back to the policing levels of the 1970s, with fewer than “215 officers per 100,000”, which is a difficult level for the future. The reduction in the number of staff in north Wales has been by more than 200 but, even worse, it is projected to be 360 by 2015. It is no use blaming the police authority, as Ministers suggest. The chief constable of Gloucestershire, in many ways a similar area to north Wales and to north-west Wales in particular, has said that policing is on “a cliff-edge”. He is not an Opposition politician, and he cites closed police stations, sold-off vehicles and the departure of senior managers and a third of the police.
What else can go in the future to make the projected cuts that are being talked about? The answer is obviously the front line. However the front, middle and back are defined: if we do not have the resource in the first place, we cannot put it on the front line. I worry, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd pointed out, about when there are serious incidents. Since I have been a Member of Parliament, there have unfortunately been a number of murders and serious crimes in my area; I know the amount of police resources used in such circumstances, when they are taken from elsewhere. If we have a thin blue line and then take police away to serious crime or incidents for many months, communities face a difficult period. That is why it is no coincidence that robbery figures have gone up by more than 60% and burglaries by some 12%; there is a link between the number of such opportunist crimes and a time of high unemployment and social deprivation in many areas. Those crimes are worrying to the individual because of the theft and the damage to property, but also because of the damage to people. People’s confidence goes, as does business confidence in towns and communities throughout the country. Those factors cannot be separated out.
My hon. Friend has mentioned the increase in the burglary rate of 12%. Within that, particularly worrying is the number of first-time offenders—their first offence is burglary, whereas in the past that crime was seen as something people perhaps graduated to, so we are seeing a worrying trend.
I understand that other people want to speak, so I will draw to a close. Such crimes are serious and they have gone up out of proportion to the others. I accept the figures of an overall reduction in serious crimes, but some figures are worrying, because there are now more victims of crime, who have had their property attacked, burgled and robbed, with theft and fraud going up. Many people are now feeling the effects of the reduction in policing, so one cannot just say that reported crime is down.
[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I shall conclude on that important point. Like many astute Members of Parliament, I go into communities and talk to people. Many people in rural communities say that it is a waste of time calling the police because by the time they arrive, the perpetrator of the crime has disappeared. People tell me that it is pointless calling the police and reporting incidents to them. That is worrying, and we should all be concerned about it. Reported crime may fall, but coupled with that there will be an increase in robberies and burglaries because of the scale of resources that have been taken away.
I urge the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice to consider the matter seriously. Instead of imposing across-the-board cuts next week, he should consider rurality as a special case, and put the rural grant back into the policing figures. In north-west Wales we have one of the best records, and the Government are snatching that away from us because of how they are imposing the cuts across the board. I appeal to the Minister to stand up for rural areas because crime is out of kilter with the rest of the country, and areas such as mine are going from best to worst through no fault of the police on the ground, who do an excellent job. I pay tribute to them and to the chief constable in these challenging times.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing this important debate on an issue that is dear to our hearts as elected politicians and to our constituents. I will not be police-bashing. The police in north Wales have done an excellent job over the years, including the former chief constable, Richard Brunstrom. Despite all the shenanigans and publicity-seeking, he put the extra funding that we provided into front-line services. Mark Polin, the new chief constable who replaced him, is also doing an excellent job.
However, things are not right in north Wales. The latest statistics show that there was a 1% drop in crime, but if one drills down and looks at the areas of crime, there has been a 12% increase in household burglaries, a 30% increase in fraud, a 10% increase in theft, and a 60% increase in robbery. Those increases are directly attributable to the cuts in the number of police officers and back-office staff. North Wales used to be the safest place to live in the United Kingdom, and if we are too complacent and do not stand up and be counted, and if we do not challenge the coalition Government, we will not be doing our job as Opposition MPs. The Opposition have been told not to be party political about the matter, but it was a political party that made the cuts. That political party stood on a manifesto of putting 3,000 extra police officers on the beat, but it cut the number by 16,000. Those political decisions were made by political parties, and Labour MPs in opposition will hold the Government to account.
I will not give way yet. I have a few more messages for the right hon. Gentleman. He stood up and said that he was party political for 13 years, and that he hoped he had done a good job in holding the then Government to account. We are going to be party political, and we will hold the right hon. Gentleman and his party and the other coalition party to account.
I will provide solutions. I will come to them. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), the shadow Minister, announced an inquiry into the future of policing, the Minister said that that was political abdication. Now is the time to have an inquiry, as we are going into a double-dip recession with massive cuts. Now is the time to analyse the issues facing a modern police force in the 21st century, but the Minister called that political abdication.
Another issue is the decline in the number of criminals caught and prosecuted. In north Wales, there was a drop of 11.5% between April and November last year. I do not believe that that is the fault of the police. North Wales is a big geographical area. It requires a lot of policing and resources, and a lot of funding.
I have given the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), a bit of a roasting, and the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) deserves the same. He did not stand up for his constituency when his party pulled out of holding its spring conference at Llandudno, and he has not stood up for policing in north Wales. The cuts are dangerous, and are having a dangerous impact in our communities. All he can say is to ask what the Labour party did. He and his Government are in power now, and they are implementing cuts too far and too fast.
I said that it is easy to spout platitudes from the Opposition Benches. The truth of the matter is that the Labour party has not explained how it would deal with the current deficit and ensure that the cuts in north Wales would be avoided in view of the shadow Chancellor’s comments that he would change any spending cuts undertaken by the Government.
The hon. Gentleman’s complacency is unbelievable, as is that from his colleague, the junior Minister at the Wales Office, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. When faced with these horrendous statistics, he said that it was most important that crime continues to fall in Wales, and that the latest figures showed that recorded crime is down 7%, which is even better than the 4% fall for England and Wales. That is complacency.
The Home Secretary did not stand up for policing during the cuts review. Other Ministers stood up for their Departments and their cuts were lowered. The chief police officers said they could cope with 12% cuts, and that was what the Labour agreed to. Our answer was to listen to what the professionals had to say, and to back them with 12% cuts. That was our answer then, and that is our answer now. The Tory and Liberal cuts are too far, too fast. There are also cuts in court costs. Denbigh magistrates court and Rhyl family court have both closed in my constituency. The prison population is at an all-time high. We are coming to a double-dip recession, and we know that crime patterns follow employment patterns.
The cuts are wrong; the pacing is wrong; the timing is wrong; and the scale is wrong. The pacing is wrong because the cuts are front-loaded. All the cuts are coming to suit the political timetable of a general election in 2015. The Government are front-loading the cuts and introducing them thick and fast to avoid the political consequences in 2015. The timing is wrong. We may be going into a double-dip recession when crime rates will rise, but the policing cuts are bigger than ever. The scale is wrong, because 12% is acceptable, but 20% is not.
Hon. Members have asked what Labour would do. When Labour left power, unemployment was coming down, confidence was going up, and growth was going up. Since then, all three have gone in the opposite direction. That has led to £158 billion of extra deficit, which is the responsibility of the coalition parties. That is what the shadow Chancellor meant when he made his comments. He cannot plan for 2015 and say that he will not cut this or that. We do not know how much more of a pig’s ear the coalition Government will make. How high will the £158 billion go? Will it perhaps go to £258 billion? Our solution would not have been to have an extra £158 billion of extra deficit.
Hear, hear. That is excellent chairing, Mr Leigh. I agree with every word you said.
In other areas, such as youth unemployment and youth crime, the Rhyl city strategy in my constituency put 420 young people back to work in 18 months, but that was ended within three weeks of the coalition Government coming to power because of political spite. It was an effective Labour interventionist policy, and it was ended because of political spite. Since then, we have been promised a Work programme but, as I suggested to the Prime Minister last week, it is a doesn’t work programme, because the number of people the Government said would go back to work will not do so. We have massive youth unemployment and massive police cuts in north Wales. We have seen what happened in the inner cities—riots—and the coalition parties should be very careful about making such cuts.
I pay tribute to the coverage of this issue by the Daily Post, in both its reporting and its political commentary, and I will conclude with an editorial from 8 December:
“The blame for any fall in standards arising from these budget cuts will rest with the Government, not the chief constable.”
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Leigh, and I thank the previous Chair, Mr Crausby, for his chairmanship in the early part of the debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). She has raised an important issue and generated a significant debate.
Contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) have highlighted the concerns felt by their communities, and I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) for his concern about western north Wales. We have also heard interesting contributions from the hon. Members for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and from the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake). He was helpfully reminded of his election pledge to support 3,000 extra officers during this Parliament, although he has since voted for cuts that over the past 18 months have led to a reduction in police numbers of some 8,000 officers.
I pay tribute to the chair and members of North Wales police authority, and to Chief Constable Mark Polin and his team. They have done a professional job over many years to ensure that north Wales is still one of the safest places in the UK in which to live. There has been great police support, good detection rates and sound community-based policing, and the engagement at levels of inspector, constable, sergeant and police community support officer has been helpful to Members of Parliament and to my constituents.
North Wales is a challenging area to police. It contains large rural areas, two languages and strong urban areas where crime is driven by urban challenges. There is also the cross-border challenge involving crime that potentially enters north Wales from parts of north-west England. There are the ports of Holyhead and Mostyn, which is in my constituency, and a range of other issues that create a complex and challenging model with which North Wales police authority must deal. I speak today as shadow Police Minister, but also, proudly, as the Member of Parliament for Delyn, which falls within the area of North Wales police authority.
The partnership of North Wales police authority with local councils and Members of the Welsh Assembly—who, as has been mentioned, were re-elected in May last year on a pledge to support 500 police community support officers—is important, and the authority’s co-operation with neighbouring forces has led to a reduction in crime over the past 10 years. At the start of the last Labour Government’s term in office, there were around 65,000 crimes each year in north Wales. By the last year of the Labour Government, that had fallen to 44,919 crimes—a reduction of over 30% that meant 21,000 fewer victims per year. As has been mentioned, victims feel 100% of the crime committed against them, and to have 21,000 fewer crimes is a compliment to the efforts of North Wales police authority and the Labour Government.
That reduction in crime was due to a range of issues such as new ways of working, innovation, the previous Government’s approach to community safety and attempts to make authorities work with the police, better co-operation and prevention, closer working partnerships, improvements in CCTV, an increase in DNA testing, automatic police number plate recognition to look at cars crossing the border, improvements in vehicle safety, station improvements, a whole range of criminal justice measures, and increased confidence in policing and co-operation with the communities as a whole. I contend, however—this is the central argument of the debate—that one of the biggest issues in helping to support policing and reduce crime over that period concerned the number of officers who were on the beat and visibly engaged with their communities.
In 1996, the last year of the previous Conservative Government, 1,378 officers walked the beat and worked in North Wales police authority. By the last year of the last Labour Government, 1,578 officers were in place—there were 200 additional officers in north Wales. Additionally, as has been mentioned by my hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, 159 PCSOs were put in place in north Wales during the last five years of the Labour Government, to help to support levels of policing and visibility on the ground. That was coupled with a rise in the number of special constables, which again helped to increase police visibility. There was a major increase in police numbers at the same time as a major reduction in crime, and 21,000 victims of crime were saved.
I would contend that. When I was the Minister responsible for policing, I encouraged and set a target for an increase in the number of special constables over the course of this Parliament. The hon. Gentleman cannot escape the fact that, during the last Labour Government, there were 200 more police officers and 159 PCSOs in north Wales. After the first year of this Government we have seen a worrying fall in police numbers for the first time, and we are likely to see a further fall over the next few years.
I can assure you of that, Mr Leigh. Thirty police officers in north Wales have been forced to leave under regulation A19 because of reductions in policing in the Budget. That is worrying, but I am most concerned that between March 2010 and September 2011 we have lost 85 police officers in north Wales. I am also worried because Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary—these are not my figures—suggests that we will lose 207 officers during the course of this Parliament. The grant settlement for 2011-12 is £49.6 million but, if approved next week, that will drop to £46.2 million by 2012-13. Projections for North Wales police authority mean that by 2015 the grant will be £43.7 million a year—a cut of almost £6 million.
I challenge anybody to explain how we can cut £6 million from policing budgets in north Wales and make that up solely from back-office savings and other efficiencies. When in government I supported efficiency measures in procurement, overtime, improving back-office support, adopting single uniforms, IT systems and a range of other issues. However, the level of cuts that we now face, and which we will vote on next week in the House, is dramatic. The cuts will impact on police morale and, more importantly, on the ability of the police to fight crime in north Wales.
Police spending per capita over the past year in north Wales has reduced from £148 to £137. The changes now being implemented have led to consultations on police station closures—including at Mostyn, Flint, Holywell, and Mold in my constituency—due to officer numbers. Now, for the first time, crime is rising. The figures presided over by the Minister last week showed an 11% overall rise in levels of personal crime. In 2011, north Wales saw worrying increases in crime: a 60% rise in cases of robbery, a 12% rise in instances of burglary, and an 11% rise in sexual offences.
As well as cuts to the budget, there is the uncertainty caused by the elections of police commissioners on 15 November this year. We will participate in that experiment as it is the law of the land, and we will fight that election, but I still worry about the future of policing.
I believe, however, that there is another way. The Labour party agrees with HMRC’s projection that a 12% cut is realistic when looking at overtime, procurement, modernisation, collaboration and back-office procedures and, as the Minister knows, we would have done that were we in government. The figures he produces for north Wales, however, show a cut in funding of £5.9 million over the next two years. That will lead to further pressures on the chief constable, further difficulties in fighting crime and, in my view, a poorer service for my constituents and people in north Wales.
The Minister needs to think again. He has an opportunity. This very day, he has announced an extra £90 million for the police force in London—coincidentally, just before a London election this year. If he can do it for London, he can review the position of north Wales for next week, and I will urge my hon. Friends next week to scrutinise seriously the Minister’s proposals.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on securing the debate. She referred to the fact that she asked me a number of questions on the Floor of the House about police funding. On the most recent occasion, she referred to me as the Prime Minister. That is the only nice thing that has been said to me since I became the Police Minister. I was grateful to her for the brief compliment that she paid me, even though it was done in error. That said, I regret the way in which she chose to introduce the debate. She kicked off with a partisan attack on the Conservative party.
No, the hon. Lady kicked off with an attack on the Conservative party and she made it clear that that was to be the tenor of her speech.
I would like to deal with a few factual matters. The hon. Lady kept talking about 20% cuts. She said that there would be 20% less money; she talked about 20% budget cuts. That is, of course, the persistent implication of those on the Opposition Benches. It is correct that in the spending review there has been a 20% reduction in central Government funding, but all the Opposition Members know perfectly well that police forces are not funded just by central Government and therefore it is simply not the case that there are 20% budget cuts in the North Wales force or any other force in the country. It is important that I make that clear, because the difference is very substantial.
I wonder how many hon. Members think that there will be no precept rise in north Wales in the next three years. I ask them to intervene on me if they think that there will be no precept rises. There is no intervention. Clearly, none of the Opposition Members thinks that there will be no rises.
Can the Minister answer the intervention that I made on my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn? How is it a saving if an officer who has been employed for 30 years is forced out of his job and paid a pension that is two thirds of his pay to sit at home doing nothing? For an extra third, he could have been kept in his job.
That is a completely different point, but the hon. Gentleman should ask himself why chief constables are taking decisions about the early retirement of a minority of officers if they think that that will not save them money.
Let me return to the point that I was making, because it was important. I was asking hon. Members whether they thought that in north Wales there would be no precept rises in the next three years. No hon. Member appears to think that there will be no precept rises. Clearly, they all think that there will be precept rises. Even if there are no precept rises in the next three years, the real-terms reduction in funding is just over 15%—not 20%, but just over 15%. That is a cash reduction of 7%.
Let me complete the point and then I will give way to the hon. Lady. Let us say that there are precept rises in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast. That is entirely a matter for the police authorities, so we do not know, but if there is a precept increase along those lines in the next three years, the real-terms reduction in funding in that period will be just over 10%. Translated into cash terms, that means that the force will have 1.2% less cash at the end of that period than it does now. That is the devastating impact that hon. Members are claiming for force funding.
The right hon. Gentleman is right: I once made a slip of the tongue and referred to him as the Prime Minister. I think that that is probably because I confused his complacency and arrogance with that of the current incumbent. Will the Minister please answer the point that I raised and the point that Chief Constable Mark Polin raised—that people had no choice whatever in the decisions that were made? Can I bring the Minister back to some of the real questions that people have asked, rather than the Tory partisan sophistry that he is giving us today?
I withdraw my kind remarks to the hon. Lady. She dished it up and she should expect to get it back. I can assure her, if she wants a serious debate about police funding, police organisation and how police forces can rise to the challenge, that no one is more anxious to engage in that serious, measured debate than I am. Indeed, I think that it is too absent from the House of Commons. It is, however, going on in policing in the real world, because out there, people are having to deal with that challenge. She, however, chose to introduce this debate in an entirely different manner—in a partisan, often cheap manner. She started off in those terms, and I will therefore give her back what she dished up to Government Members, without apology.
I was, however, making a serious point. I was making the point that the spending reduction—
The Minister keeps bringing down the size of the cut that there actually is. I do not believe that he is right, but if he is, why does he think that North Wales police and, indeed, all police forces are cutting and feel that they have to cut front-line policing?
I will come to the issue of—[Interruption.] I will come directly to that issue. We have always said that the reductions in spending will mean that there will be a smaller work force. No one has ever disputed that. The issue is how those reductions are managed and what the impact then is on policing. I completely reject, and have consistently rejected, the binary link that hon. Members make that suggests that any reduction in public spending will mean a reduction in the quality of the service or that any reduction in headcount will mean a reduction in the quality of the service. That is the fundamental difference between Government Members and Opposition Members. We do not make that binary link. We are interested in the quality of the service and how well resources are deployed. Until Opposition Members understand that point and start talking about value for money and wise spending rather than big spending, they will continue to be in the position that they are in.
The Minister is generous about giving way. He talked about the precept and council tax. Does he think it fair that the people of north Wales, through their council taxes, have paid extra into other forces but are getting the same level of cuts from central Government? Does he want to balance the situation? If north Wales taxpayers paid less through their council tax, would he increase the central Government allocation to them in the interest of fairness?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. We can discuss it further in the forthcoming funding debate. I am happy to answer it. In taking decisions about damping, we had to consider whether to make an adjustment for those forces that raise more from council tax. I considered that matter very carefully and it was a difficult decision, but in the end we decided that it was not fair to penalise those local populations that are already raising more from local taxpayers by saying that they would receive even less central grant than would otherwise be the case. The expectation of all chief constables and police authorities at the time was that there would be an even reduction in funding. We decided to apply an even cut as a consequence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand—he may shake his head in disagreement—that that was a proper justification for that decision. It would have been unfair to penalise local taxpayers even more for the fact that they were contributing higher amounts than was the case in many other areas.
I want to make another point to the hon. Member for Clwyd South, in the short time left to me, on the facts of what is happening. There was a reduction in police officers in north Wales of 3.4%, according to the latest figures, in the year to September 2011. That is slightly lower than the national reduction. The reduction in staff is greater than that; staff are often overlooked in relation to these decisions. The hon. Lady’s case is that any reduction in funding is bound to produce an increase in crime, but of course the facts have not been going with her. The facts would not support the case that she makes even if it were intellectually a consistent case. On the latest figures, total recorded offences in north Wales in exactly the same period—to September 2011—were down 1%. There are, of course, particular crime categories within that where that is not the case, but equally there are other categories where crime levels have gone down by bigger margins than that.
It is very important that the force keeps on top of crime. I spoke to the chief constable this morning, and he reassured me. I will quote him. He believes that the force is
“on track to hit a three-year reduction target of 6.3%.”
That is the right ambition. The simple point is this: there is no simple link between spending levels, officer numbers and our ability to fight crime. It depends on effective organisation, good management and effective deployment of resources. It is about—