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Police (Surrey)

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. Before the debate had even started, I had already benefited from your advice and wisdom. Thank you. I am also grateful for the opportunity to address the Minister and to discuss police funding in Surrey.

Few issues are of greater importance to people throughout the country than ensuring that their local police force has the resources that it needs. The residents of Esher and Walton, and indeed of the county of Surrey, are no exception. Surrey’s front-line police officers do a first-rate job. I commend the dedication and commitment that they bring to keeping our communities safe. We are also blessed with a top-notch chief constable.

I want to say at the outset that I support the Government’s drive to promote efficiency and reform in the police service, which is in the interests of both law enforcement and the taxpayer. I commend the Minister for his pioneering efforts in that regard. In the current financial climate, all parts of the public sector must do their bit to deliver maximum value for money, and the police cannot be immune.

However, I have concerns about the current consultation on changing or removing the damping mechanism for police funding. The damping mechanism is a critical safeguard for forces such as Surrey, which lose out disproportionately under the central funding formula. In particular, the mitigation provided by the damping mechanism ensures that Surrey police enjoy the same level of increase or decrease in funding as other forces.

Neither Surrey police, Surrey police authority nor I object in principle to a review of the damping mechanism, but logically and fairly, it ought to be part of the wider review of police funding that the Government have pledged to carry out before the next comprehensive spending review. If the anomalies in the current funding formula could be ironed out to create a truly needs-based, fair system, damping could be phased out, but the current consultation, which focuses on the future of the damping mechanism from 2013-14 onwards, risks leaving Surrey financially high and dry through no fault of its own. That cannot be right.

Is it not the case that Surrey taxpayers pay some of the highest taxes into our national Exchequer, yet we also end up paying some of the highest precepts? It is not because Surrey police are not efficient; they are. Surely that cannot be fair.

I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. As someone who worked in local government before becoming an MP, he knows the details far better than me. That basic logic and flow cannot be right. It cannot be right that we keep paying more and more and get less and less back. It is unsustainable.

That message was borne out in no small part by a 2009 review conducted by Oxford Economics of local application of the central funding formula. Surrey loses out under that formula for various compound reasons. For example, the funding formula takes into account daytime net flows of traffic, but not total traffic or total accidents, which are disproportionately high in Surrey compared with the other indices. It takes into account average deprivation, which is relatively low in Surrey, but ignores our proximity to areas of high deprivation, taking little account of cross-border criminals who may target the county. My borough, which is in the north-east, has a lot of that kind of crime. Nor does it take into account the impact of our proximity to Heathrow and Gatwick, which is also linked to crime levels.

Does my hon. Friend agree that no account is taken of traffic through the county? That is a crucial point. As I understand it, data are available to show that through traffic relates to crime.

I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. Oxford Economics considers the issue of flow in some detail. I commend the report to the Minister if he wants to examine the detail of what we are discussing.

Other elements, such as our proximity to high population areas, have also been proven relevant to levels of crime but are not factored into the funding formula, which measures only population levels within the county. Those shortcomings are mitigated by the damping arrangements. It is therefore unfair to remove or revise one without considering the other.

Surrey police do an outstanding job, which is reflected in the public’s 90% confidence rating. Today’s report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, “Policing in Austerity: One Year On”, breaks down the situation by individual forces, showing the progress that the Surrey police have made in dealing with austerity.

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that we should recognise the achievements of Surrey police in maintaining the same level of service to the public in Surrey, despite reductions of about £7 million in their budget so far, and that further cuts could risk public safety?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The key issue is sustainability. It cannot be right that those who perform best in terms of delivering cost efficiencies while adding further front-line officers should be penalised and find themselves victims of their own success.

Surrey has achieved those net satisfaction ratings despite having faced challenging conditions for a number of years. It is important to put the issue in context; it is not all about austerity under the coalition. Surrey did not share in Labour’s “land of milk and honey” spending spree. While real-terms spending on the police increased nationally by 19% between 1997 and 2010, funding for Surrey police was cut by 39% in real terms. Measured by central funding per person, Surrey got the worst deal of all 43 police forces in England and Wales.

Faced with that legacy, Surrey police responded positively. In July 2010, the Audit Commission and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary praised Surrey police for their efficiency in work force deployment, the way they centralised cross-cutting functions such as human resources and their rigorous and robust approach to achieving cost savings.

Surrey police followed that up with their policing plan for 2011-14, which rationalised the police estate. That, of course, involved a difficult set of decisions that had to be conveyed, sold and communicated locally. It is a very tangible thing to replace police stations or sell off old estate to make way for new hubs. That was difficult. Surrey police also reformed their procurement practices; it is widely accepted that they were in the vanguard in doing so. They cut middle management, which is also difficult, as it creates morale issues in a force. It was not an easy decision, but they took it. Through the net savings, they focused on putting officers into the areas of greatest need, including neighbourhood policing and serious crime investigations, precisely the areas that the public, and I as their MP, want to be priorities for investment.

Over and above all those savings, Surrey police’s rigorous approach and financial discipline allowed the force to reinvest in an extra 200 police constables. That would be extraordinary given the financial straits everyone is in, but it is particularly so for Surrey, given the legacy that it inherited.

Despite the dire financial legacy left by the last Government, Surrey was the only force in England and Wales able to increase officer numbers between September 2010 and September 2011. As the Audit Commission, HMIC and the Home Office have commented, Surrey police are a model of how to get a financial house in order. They did so proactively, before the financial crisis compelled the wider belt-tightening now under way. They did not wait for the waves to hit; they were on the front foot. Like other forces, they are now halfway through a 20% real-terms cut in central Government funding. Surrey police have dealt with all those challenges while improving their record against several key indicators of performance, such as serious crime detection.

However, Surrey has reached its limits. If the damping mechanism is removed, the force stands to lose, in total—there are two components—£4 million in funding, the equivalent of losing 83 police constables. That would be a serious blow to the force and a kick in the teeth, not only to the force, which has taken such steps to be a model of cost-efficiency, but to the people of Surrey, who pay such high levels of tax, too little of which returns as investment in local public services.

Our police need to be properly funded to deal with the wide range of challenges that they face daily. There is a perception of Surrey as a leafy backwater with no crime, challenges or deprivation, whose sleepy towns and villages are the last place where crime or antisocial behaviour is a real issue; but as my colleagues who have spoken, and others, know, that is a myth. The reality is, as has been said time and again, that Surrey is a county force grappling with metropolitan issues.

My wonderful ward of Maybury and Sheerwater is deprived by national standards and has a diverse ethnic mix. Does my hon. Friend agree that we can ill afford to lose 80-odd police constables in Surrey?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I agree with him. One of the problems with the myth about Surrey—it is as true of his constituency as it is of mine—is that average levels of affluence hide pockets of deprivation and real social challenges, which play out in terms of law enforcement, policing, crime and antisocial behaviour. Having made difficult financial sacrifices and tightened their purse strings, communities want to be able to keep the savings for front-line policing. The key issue in my hon. Friend’s and my constituencies, and in those of my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), is visible and responsive policing. We are seeking to make sure that that is safeguarded, and the damping mechanism is critical.

It is precisely because, overall and on average, Surrey is an affluent area that it has become something of a target for professional criminals from other areas. During my time as an MP, I have seen professionals targeting shops and businesses in Cobham, Thames Ditton and other areas, which also suffer from antisocial behaviour, robbery and other crimes. Overall, almost 50% of crime in the county is committed by non-Surrey residents, while in 2008, 59% of the organised crime gangs affecting Surrey operated from London. That cross-border crime is a serious concern.

Equally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley mentioned, Surrey roads require constant policing. The county is in the top 6% of local areas for volume of traffic per resident, and in the top 15% for accidents per resident. None of that is accurately reflected in the funding formula. Unsurprisingly, despite all Surrey police’s good work, those factors, which are not picked up by the funding formula, have affected law enforcement capability, which is being measured against finite and shrinking resources.

One specific issue that I have raised with Surrey police authority and the chief constable is Surrey’s sanctioned detection rate, which is the percentage of crimes for which someone is charged, summonsed or cautioned. Surrey’s rate has been either the lowest or second lowest in England and Wales for each of the past three years. In 2010-11, it was 8% below the national average. That is a visible, tangible symptom of the difficult challenges with which the force is grappling with regard to finances and law enforcement capability. Although the figure is improving, the one thing that Surrey police cannot afford is to lose scores of officers, which is the risk we face as a result of the review of the damping mechanism.

The people of Surrey should not be short-changed when it comes to the police. Let us bear in mind that in 2010 Surrey contributed £5.5 billion to the Treasury, but we got back just one third of the national average level of funding for local public services. The residents of Surrey—the taxpayers of Surrey—understand that they need to do their bit. They also understand the need for Britain to cut her coat according to her financial cloth. They have been some of the most proactive participants in that regard, given all that has been said about the discipline that Surrey police have shown in the past few years. However, those residents and my constituents will neither understand nor support changes that result in Surrey police losing millions of pounds every year if their protection from a skewed funding formula is stripped away.

The future of police funding is an important and contentious issue. I know why Ministers are nervous about tinkering with the police funding formula, and a full discussion on how to reform it is beyond the scope of today’s debate. However, that wider debate needs to take place before changes to the damping mechanism can reasonably be pushed through. I urge the Minister to give an assurance that the damping mechanism will only be altered, phased out or reduced as part of a coherent package of reforms, and not in isolation.

Neither Surrey police nor the people of Surrey are asking for special treatment. This is not about a subsidy; it is about mitigation of the knock-on effect of a funding formula that does not accurately reflect local needs in Surrey, and the same is true for other forces. We are not asking for special treatment; we are asking for a fair deal. The damping mechanism gives Surrey some mitigation from the flaws of the funding formula, and until that formula is properly reviewed and reformed, that protection should remain intact.

Welcome to the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) on his forceful speech and on securing the debate and the support of his colleagues. I take Members who represent Surrey constituencies seriously when they hunt in a pack, as they have done today, and will pay the closest attention to what they say.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the Surrey force, which is ably led by its new chief constable. It emerged with a good review, from the report issued yesterday by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, of how it is dealing with the inevitable reductions in spending that the Government have asked police forces to make. The review said that the force has a good history of bringing down costs and changing how services are delivered. It began to transform how it operates in 2009, before the 2010 comprehensive spending review. As a result, it is in a good position to achieve its savings target by 2015.

The force has plans in place that, if delivered, will achieve 100% of the £27 million-worth of savings that it is required to make between 2011 and 2015. In making those savings, and in contrast to every other force, Surrey plans to increase the number of police officers by 50—that is a 3% increase compared with other forces, which are losing officers. It is the only force in the country able to do that over the spending review period. Within that total, the force is reducing the number of officers in more senior ranks by not replacing retiring managers, and increasing the number of constables by up to 200. Surrey also plans to increase the number of police community support officers by 50, while reducing the number of police staff by some 8%.

That all means that, by 2015, 80% of Surrey’s work force will be on the front line, which is a considerably higher proportion than most other forces, where the average is about two thirds. In common with other forces, Surrey is increasing the proportion of its police officers on the front line from 78% to 90%, which is exactly what I think the public want to see.

On outcomes, crime is still decreasing in Surrey, although at a slightly lower rate than in England and Wales as a whole. It is important that the force maintains its focus in adapting to the changed spending environment and continues to deliver a high-quality service to the public and to reduce crime, which is, of course, the most important outcome for members of the public. My hon. Friend drew attention to the particular circumstances of Surrey’s funding and set out the ways in which he believes Surrey is disadvantaged. First, he mentioned that Surrey has raised a much higher proportion of its funding from its local precept than other forces; indeed, I think it raises more of its money from the local precept than any other force in England and Wales. There is a greater call on local taxpayers than in other parts of the country, but equally, Surrey has been relatively protected from the reduction in central Government funding. The forces that raise less money from their precept have suffered a proportionately greater reduction in funding than those that raised more, such as Surrey. That is merely a statement of the fact.

Let me elaborate. By 2012-13, the current financial year, Surrey was raising nearly half its overall funding from the precept. When we were allocating the funding for all forces in England and Wales at the beginning of the spending review period, a question arose. Since other forces were going to be affected to a greater extent by not raising more money from the local precept, should they have a lower reduction in their spending than forces such as Surrey? It was argued, including in this Chamber, by various hon. Members whose constituencies are policed by the forces concerned, that it would be wrong to penalise them when forces such as Surrey were more able to withstand the reduction in central funding.

The Government took the view that it was not right in principle to penalise local taxpayers for the fact that they were already contributing more for their local policing service. At the time, forces, police authorities and chief constables were expecting a 20% reduction in central Government funding. We had not indicated or confirmed that it would be an even 20% reduction for each force, so it was open to us to adjust the amount according to the money that was raised through the precept. Through the damping mechanism, we decided that the equitable solution, taking all factors into account, was to do what they expected us to do, which was to use the damping mechanism to achieve an even reduction in funding for all forces, including Surrey. From that point of view, I do not believe that Surrey was disadvantaged by our decision.

The Minister will be aware that after Labour entered government in 1997, the tendency to shift money away from the south and south-east was to such a degree that even the Audit Commission commented on it. That included local government, schools, the national health service and the police. His argument is based on a funding formula that we want reviewed because it is flawed. We feel that we need a review. The damping stays, and after the review, he will have to have another form of damping, because he will have the arguments much the same way, but at least Surrey will be getting what we anticipate to be a fair share of the cake.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I disagree that the formula is not fit for purpose. It allocates funding according to need. The Government’s position is that we wish to move towards a full application of the formula. The question is not whether we do that, but at what rate and how. It would have been a great deal easier for the previous Government to move to full application of the formula and away from the distorting effects of damping when there were increases in funding for all forces. It is a great deal harder to do that when funding for forces is declining. Had we done so, some forces that benefit from damping, including Surrey—to the extent of an additional £3.2 million in the current financial year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton pointed out—would have seen a greater reduction in central Government funding.

For the reasons that I have set out, we felt that the equitable approach was not to move away from damping towards full application of the formula in the first two years of the spending review. However, we reserved our position in relation to years three and four. I have just consulted police authorities about what we should do regarding damping in those years. That consultation has just closed, and we will analyse the responses carefully. I will not prejudge our decision, but the points expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Esher and Walton and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) are well made.

If the current funding formula truly reflects need, why do Surrey taxpayers, in addition to all the taxes that they pay nationally, have to pay the highest precept in the country? The Minister has already accepted that we have an excellent and efficient force.

The formula takes into account the need in an area. Taking a step back, if we look at the other end of the spectrum, towards a force in an urban area, where there is particular social deprivation, much higher levels of crime and all the complexities that arise because of that, it is obvious that the need is higher, and the formula reflects that. I accept that there has been a greater call on local taxpayers as a result of the amount provided to Surrey by central Government, but my point is that our decisions on spending reductions for all forces in years one and two, far from disadvantaging Surrey, treated all forces evenly, because those that raise much less from their council tax would have seen a much greater reduction in funding.

I should point out that Surrey has increased its precept in the current financial year. It has chosen not to freeze the precept, despite the Government’s offer. That increases the funding for the force. If Surrey were to increase its precept again in the last two years of the spending review, assuming the increases suggested by the Office for Budget Responsibility and no change in the current damping arrangements, the real terms reduction in funding over the whole spending review period would be just over 10%, which does not approach the 20% suggested for other forces. That is a 1.4% reduction in cash terms. Surrey is therefore in a relatively advantageous position, enabling it, for instance, to increase its officer numbers. Even if Surrey does not increase the precept in the last two years, the real-terms reduction in overall funding will be about 13%, or less than 5% in cash terms.

I am just stating the factual position that, as local taxpayers have been forced to contribute more, which I accept, Surrey has been relatively protected from central Government funding reductions over the past two years. The consequence is that it has not had the reductions in police officer numbers that other forces have had to make. Nevertheless, my hon. Friends have made strong points about the application of damping, and I will take those into careful consideration when I decide what to do in years three and four of the spending review. Their points about damping and the application of the formula were well made, and I assure them that they will be noted.