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Policing (Devon and Cornwall)

Volume 547: debated on Monday 25 June 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise policing in the Devon and Cornwall force area. Many people do not consider the police in detail until such time as we need to call on their support, services and advice. Complaints against the police are occasionally brought to the attention of MPs. As with all services, there is a tendency to focus on negative reports—people do not often take the trouble to come to their MP’s surgery to express their admiration and gratitude for a service—but hon. Members appreciate and are incredibly grateful for what police officers, police community support officers and police staff do in their constituencies to ensure that there is a great deterrent to crime and community engagement on tackling and resolving problems confronting that community, and that those who commit crimes are detected.

Devon and Cornwall is the largest force area in England—it is more than 180 miles from one end to the other. Fortunately, it is also one of the safest places to live and work. Recorded crime has been low in recent years in the area compared with other parts of the country, although in recent months, there are signs of a reverse in that trend. Perhaps we can expect that at times of economic hardship—sadly, we have seen crime rise in such circumstances in the past. That reverse is at an early stage, and we must keep it under close review.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that Charles Cross police station in my constituency is one of the busiest police stations—if not the busiest—in the whole of England, principally because of drug and alcohol abuse?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on one of the pressures on the police. That problem requires close cross-agency working, including health and social services, and local housing officers. The police have a great demand made of them from cross-agency working and they also have a huge contribution to make.

As I was saying, Devon and Cornwall police cover a huge area. It is mix of urban areas, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out—it includes Plymouth and other larger settlements—and rural areas. Another characteristic of the force is that its officer base is at the higher end of the age profile, which is somewhat driven by the high number of transfers into the force area. That brings with it the benefit of experience and a range of skills, but it also changes the characteristics of the force. Officers have raised that with me.

Devon and Cornwall police are highly thought of: according to studies, 68.7% of those who responded said that the force was good or excellent, placing it second out of the 42 forces, and 90% expected to be treated respectfully by the police, again putting them second. As I have said, it is also one of the safest places—in fact, in the top 10—in the country.

We are, however, in a time of deficit reduction, and the Liberal Democrats and our Conservative coalition partners have signed up to doing the right thing, which is to tackle the deficit left to us by the previous Government. Sadly, no one from Her Majesty’s Opposition is with us, but they have admitted the need to tackle the deficit. Of course, though, they are now in the happy position of being able to claim that they would not make a single cut to a single service when they are being debated in isolation, while claiming that they would still tackle the deficit, if over a slightly longer period.

The Government, on the other hand, must deal with deficit reduction as it manifests itself on the ground, which means cuts in public spending. The police service, like other services, has had to bear its share, although, as was made plain to me by officers and former officers, some feel that it has been made to take more than its share of the burden of deficit reduction. In Devon and Cornwall, as in other forces, it will mean a cut in police staff—the number of officers—and therefore in the force’s ability to deliver the full range of services they have been delivering in recent years.

An unintended consequence that could have severe implications in Devon and Cornwall is the simultaneous cutbacks in the Ministry of Defence police force, which will put pressure on the civilian police force to move into areas that, in the past, they relied on the MOD force to police. Dartmouth is an example, and so too is Plymouth. I am extremely worried that there might be a double-whammy effect from the necessary austerity measures.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been close working between MOD police and the local constabulary, and as those pressures are brought to bear on the MOD police, changes in working practice will be inevitable.

Perhaps the cuts in Devon and Cornwall are compounded by one or two aspects of the funding formula. First, the formula does not take into account, as some other public funding formulae do, the huge influx in the number of visitors. In the summer, the population of Devon and Cornwall increases dramatically. I no longer represent the town of Newquay, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert), but I did once, and I saw at first hand the huge explosion in population. That was welcome, because of the money it brought to the local economy, but it also increased the pressure on policing.

In the health service, bills can be re-charged to primary care trusts in the areas from which patients originate. Of course, it is not so easy for the policing formula to charge local police authorities for the work carried out on behalf of citizens who happen to be in the south-west of the United Kingdom for that period. As the Government consider police funding, however, there might be an opportunity to make the base formula take that issue into account.

Secondly, there is the issue of the funding formula as currently constituted and its assessment of the funding level that each force should receive. As I understand it, Devon and Cornwall force could receive an extra £4.9 million were they to receive their full allocation, as one would expect, under the formula. The reason they do not is the damping mechanism, which ensures that forces seen to be overfunded do not lose out in short order on a lot of funding to benefit forces such as Devon and Cornwall in the correct manner. I would, however, like to see a mechanism that shows that some progress is being made on the funding due to Devon and Cornwall. If that £4.9 million were to be made available, it would equate to 100 officers, which would make a huge difference to the programme of change and to the cuts being delivered as a result of deficit reduction.

Under the area cost adjustment, areas seen to be high cost—I could stray into the controversial topic of regional pay, but I will resist the temptation—are given extra funding. This spreads out from London as one heads westward. Sadly, it peters out around Dorset, so the Devon and Cornwall force does not benefit from area cost adjustment, whereas other forces in the south-west do. Yet again, I would suggest, there is an element of unfairness there.

We face the challenges of policing across a diverse, geographically widespread peninsular environment, the funding for which is, sadly, deficient in a number of respects. I fully accept that this is an historic issue—it is one that this Government have inherited, but I look to them to consider some of the issues so that they might be resolved in the future.

The cuts manifest themselves in planned cuts to the sworn officer base from 3,580 in 2010 to 2,810 in 2015—a 21.5% reduction, with 700 fewer officers. At the same time, there is a reduction in police staff of about 500. This puts pressure on the ability to deliver such services as specialist traffic police and accident investigation—not during the middle of the day, but perhaps over weekends and late at night, reducing the ability to examine the scene of an accident in detail. We could be looking at some reduction in the excellent community policing performed by the neighbourhood teams, and another stretched resource is response cover. That is particularly challenging in rural areas, as response times can be affected when areas are stretched. There are also more specialist areas of work—in diversity, for example—and there will inevitably be a reduction in the vehicle fleet infrastructure and estate. As I said earlier, we accept that some of these cuts had to come because of the strategy for dealing with deficit reduction. It is important, however, to look at how we can support the chief constable and those who have to deal with these issues on the ground.

It would be fair to say that, because of the financial challenges, police morale is pretty low. They are doing a fantastic job, but they are concerned about the future of the service and about their own careers. A few months ago, I attended a meeting in Launceston—I pronounce it that way for the benefit of those taking notes of our proceedings—and more recently in Bodmin, when I had discussions with a number of officers who work on the front line. They are feeling it pretty hard at the moment. They are concerned about the level of reduction in the number of officers and about one or two other changes under consideration at the moment and how they might impact on them.

Let me refer briefly to the pensions issue; it is not my main focus this evening, but as with those working in public services elsewhere, this is a matter of concern—particularly to officers who have served for some time and are worried that things might change during their period of service. With the Winsor review in mind, there is concern about pay, particularly about how a mechanism based on incremental points and length of service is going to be changed, while a skills threshold will also be introduced. For someone at the top of the constable scale, that could represent a reduction in pay if they do not qualify for the skills threshold. In the longer term, there is the problem of moving towards a different framework, while those serving for some time are also worried about possible loss of earnings through a structural change that does not reflect their policing career and their abilities.

Police officers have raised such concerns with me as well. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he disagrees with the Winsor proposals, or does he accept that such measures are necessary to modernise and reform the police force and make it more responsive to the needs of today?

I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s understanding. He may be more of an expert on these issues than I am. However, I have been guided by discussions with serving officers, among whom there is a range of opinion. Some feel strongly that the status quo should continue, while others are open and sympathetic to change as long as it reflects performance and the reality with which they live from day to day. They fear that the proposed reforms may not entirely pass that test. I wanted to share the views of those local officers with the House for the Minister’s benefit.

One issue that has been brought to my attention is that of the starting salary, which will rise as a trainee moves towards becoming a constable, but may still be lower—at least at the beginning—than that of a police community support officer. Points have been made about their respective roles. There is also the issue of unsocial hours. It has been pointed out to me that the new way of rewarding officers for working at night may create perverse incentives. For example, officers who had been rostered to do evening work for which they were to have been be rewarded might be worse off if some of those hours were shifted to the daytime so that they could make a court appearance. That strikes me as a rather strange state of affairs.

We are understandably asking the police service, as we are asking other public services, to bear down on cost and deliver the most efficient service possible, and to deal with cuts in numbers. We should ensure that other changes that we are calling on the service to make at the same time pass the test—that they constitute the most efficient use of resources, that they will provide incentives and rewards for good performance, and that they will not act as a disincentive and further undermine the morale of the service.

The key points that I hope that the Minister will take on board relate to funding. The damping mechanism means that some areas are being overfunded and some underfunded, a process with which we are all too familiar in Devon and Cornwall in the context of other public services. There is also the issue of the area cost adjustment versus the huge costs of delivering a service across a rural area such as ours.

Given all the changes that we are asking police forces to make in order to bring about some kind of modernisation of the service, I should like to be reassured that we are listening closely to those on the ground who will have to live with those changes, so that we maintain their trust and good will. We are very fortunate to have a band of officers who are committed, who want to make a real difference in their communities, and who want to protect the public and community safety. I hope that when we reach the end of this period of change, we shall have a police service that is fit for purpose and does the best that it possibly can with the resources that we are able to give it, but which also motivates its members to give of their best.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) on securing the debate. I note that, while my hon. Friend has been here to speak with conviction about the importance of local policing and his own police force, supported by others on our side of the Chamber, no Labour Members are present on either the Front or the Back Benches to take part in this short debate.

My hon. Friend began by referring to the importance of the police service, and the importance of ensuring that its members—both staff and officers, as he made clear—feel appreciated. I strongly agree. It is important that this House constantly repeats that we value the British police service, that it is, indeed, the finest service in the world, and that we appreciate the role police officers play—which we do. It is also true that, as my hon. Friend recognised, we are having to take some difficult decisions to deal with the economic deficit, and policing must play its part. I will come on to that.

My hon. Friend made it clear that the Devon and Cornwall force can be proud of the fact that it is delivering for local people one of the lowest crime rates in the country. It has, in fact, the fourth lowest crime rate of all forces in England and Wales. That is not to say that there are not particular challenges, including the more recent ones to which my hon. Friend referred. It remains true that Devon and Cornwall is a relatively safe place to live, however, and that is thanks to the work of the police force and its partner agencies that help to deliver reductions in crime. It is also true that the force is highly thought of. It has higher satisfaction rates than other forces. Those who work in the Devon and Cornwall force can be proud of that.

Police forces have to play their part in our effort to reduce the deficit, and Devon and Cornwall is no exception. We have had to reduce central funding for police forces by 20% in real terms over the four years of the spending review, but it is important to note that not all funding for the police service comes from that central fund; some of it comes from local sources, and the police authority increased the precept by 2% for this year. Were the precept to continue to increase for the next two years—that will in future be for the elected police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall to decide—the real reduction in resources would be 14%, or about 5.5% in cash terms. That is a challenging reduction, but it is manageable. Even if the precept were not increased, the real reduction would be 16%, so it is not a 20% reduction, as some have claimed. No force in England is suffering that level of reduction in funding, in fact.

Forces must find ways to make that reduction in spending while protecting the quality of their service. The Devon and Cornwall force is determined to do that. It has made a particular commitment to try to protect neighbourhood policing, which is highly valued by the public. That is a visible and available form of policing, in which Devon and Cornwall has to make some progress in comparison with other forces.

My hon. Friend said that police officers feel they are contributing more than their fair share in dealing with the deficit. I do not accept that. Savings have had to be made across the public sector, including in services with which the police work. Police officers will therefore be aware that other services have had to contribute savings. None of these decisions is easy, but the national priority must be to reduce the deficit, which this Government are successfully doing.

It is true that the reduction in spending in Devon and Cornwall will mean a reduction in police numbers. That is not desirable, of course. None of us wants police forces to have to reduce police numbers—albeit from a peak, it must be said. That is a reality, however. Every force is seeking to ensure that those reductions do not impinge on the front-line service.

It is pleasing that the senior leadership of the force are clear that they are determined to maintain that quality of service provision. Indeed, I note that on 12 March, the assistant chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, Paul Netherton, said:

“We have delivered an even better service than before, and we are getting to more jobs faster than before. In terms of service to the public, we have improved, despite having to deal with the consequences of a very challenging budget situation.”

It is important that that service quality be maintained, but it is also important that crime continues to be tackled. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to his concern that there were signs that crime has increased over recent months in Devon and Cornwall, and the latest official figures showed a slight increase. That is in contrast to the majority of forces in England and Wales, so it is not possible to link that increase with the reduction in force numbers and police numbers, because that has happened to other forces as well, yet they have continued to reduce crime.

Devon and Cornwall know that they face a challenge and that they need to get back on top of crime and deliver the reductions in crime that we saw in the previous three years. At a time when the force is restructuring, yes, that is challenging, but the force’s senior leadership and everybody who works in it know that they have to rise to that challenge. We will expect the elected police and crime commissioner representing the people of Devon and Cornwall from November to attend to that in ensuring that the force’s past performance is restored.

I should note that of those forces that are most similar to Devon and Cornwall—so there is a fair size comparison—Cambridgeshire, for example, has experienced a 5.4% fall in police officer numbers, which is about the same as Devon and Cornwall, but it successfully delivered a 9% reduction in crime in the last year. Wiltshire has reduced overall crime by 5%, while at the same time officer numbers fell by 5.9%. So it can be done, and it is being done by other forces. Of course, the circumstances of each force are different, but it is important that that performance be maintained.

My hon. Friend mentioned the various issues relating to the funding formula. Other forces make the point about visitors and I am certainly willing to have a look at that, although it might be difficult to adjust the funding formula and to work out how that could be done. However, this issue does affect other forces as well.

I am afraid I have only two minutes left, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

On damping, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall mentioned, the Government are consulting stakeholders about our decisions on damping for the final two years of this spending review period. Devon and Cornwall should make their representations known, if they have not already done so; they have until 29 June. We are looking at this issue and there are some forces, such as Devon and Cornwall, that lose through the damping process, while others gain. These are therefore very difficult decisions to take, but our long-term ambition remains to move away from the application of damping towards the full application of the formula, which would be fair and right. The question is how to do that in a fair manner when there have to be spending reductions for forces.

Overall, Devon and Cornwall have a spend of £181 per head of population, including central costs, which is similar to the forces’ peer average of £178. So overall, the force is not losing in terms of spend.

On the morale of police officers, we are committed to ensuring that police officers remain the best paid among the emergency services—and so they should be, reflecting the unique nature of the job they do—and committed to valuing police officers. We will ensure that changes are negotiated properly, and the Government will follow the proper negotiating procedures and ensure that we treat officers fairly and value them as we should. My hon. Friend said that we are fortunate to have the policing and the police service that we do in this country, and so we are, not least in Devon and Cornwall.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.