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Dorset Police (Funding)

Volume 564: debated on Wednesday 19 June 2013

Good morning, Mr Dobbin. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today and to see the Minister in his place. He and I have communicated on several occasions on this subject. He has been extremely accommodating to date, and I am sure that our good relationship will continue despite what I have to say this morning. I plan to speak for no more than 15 minutes to give him time to reply and to take some interventions. I am sure that my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) will intervene and make points, and I am happy to take their interventions.

Let me praise and thank Dorset police and all its officers who serve with great distinction and honour and who keep the residents of Dorset safe. Dorset police force is one of the best in the country; I have met many of its officers and am impressed by their devotion to duty and their dedication. We are all extremely grateful to them for what they do.

Dorset is now the lowest centrally funded police force out of the 43 in England and Wales. While some forces receive three quarters of their grant from central Government, Dorset receives less than half. The rest of the burden is placed on the local taxpayer, and that inequity is repeated year after year and will worsen when a further £1.9 million is lost in so-called formula damping.

The 2013-14 grant settlement has seen Dorset receive less funding than the formula calculates as appropriate. Had the formula been followed, we would have had an additional £16 million to spend this year alone, which equates to nearly 850 more police officers on the beat at today’s starting salary of £19,000 a year. The reality is that, through cuts, we have lost an astonishing 340 officers since 2007, which is 23% of our total officer strength. By 2018, anticipated further cuts suggest that we will lose 468 warranted police officers, which is 31% of our numbers. That is equivalent to losing every single officer in Weymouth, Portland, Dorchester, Bridport, Lyme Regis, Sherborne, Blandford, Shaftesbury, Gillingham, Sturminster Newton and Beaminster—it sounds a bit like a train journey I have been on a few times. On the urban side of our county, cutting 468 officers would mean losing every officer in Bournemouth and Christchurch and some of those in Poole.

Proportionally, Dorset has lost the highest number of police officers and staff in the country. Back-office functions are already pared to the bone; that was done by the previous chief constable who did a wonderful job in meeting Government expectations and targets. None the less, Dorset police are expected to do more with less. To their great credit, they have one of the highest levels of public confidence in the country, but they will not be able to sustain that because they face unique policing challenges, which are increasing every year.

I am reluctant to ask my hon. Friend to give way because he is making such a powerful case. May I join him in congratulating the emergency services—not just the police but the fire and ambulance services—for the work that they do in Dorset? He is right to say that Dorset is not only one of the best performing constabularies in the country, but one of the worst funded. Does he agree that one aspect of this damping formula is that it does not include visitors or tourism? Places such as Bournemouth and his constituency have an influx of people coming in, giving police extra work to do, which then hinders them from taking responsibility for the residents, and that concerns police.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will come to it later on. Dorset gets no recognition for the fact that it receives 14 million visitors a year.

Evenly split between a large conurbation on one side and a scattering of rural communities on the other, the “two Dorsets” demand very different styles of policing. Rural policing involves greater distances and time and, therefore, costs, and the night-time economy in our seaside towns, particularly when summer numbers peak due to tourism, demands a significant police presence. That is an area of great concern as stretched resources have to be targeted at weekend trouble spots, leaving the rest of the county with minimal cover. Resources are stretched even further to cope with the 14 million visitors who come to Dorset each year. Added to that, we have thriving sea ports and a busy international airport. None of those factors is recognised in the police funding allocation, which, by 2018, will allow us barely to fund 1,000 officers to police the lot.

Our police and crime commissioner, Martyn Underhill, has fought valiantly for increased funding and continues to do so. As he says:

“We are the lowest funded force and have seen the worst cuts. This is wrong. I will continue to fight this.”

However, in the absence of any new funding, he is obliged to look at sponsorship, which is anathema to most police officers and to me. It has been tried elsewhere in the Met, but there is naturally great concern about the independence of the police when sponsors’ names are emblazoned on every police vehicle, station and letterhead. Admittedly, the rules are strict: sponsorship must not amount to more than 1% of a force’s total income; none of the statutory functions of the force should depend on the sponsorship; and sponsors may not interfere with police duties.

However, the potential for conflict of interest, or at least a perception of conflict of interest, is evident. I should like, if I may, to inject a note of levity here. In the future, when someone asks, why do all police officers look so young these days, the answer will be, because they use Camay! I inject a note of humour, Mr Dobbin, but I think it makes the point rather well. Policing is a serious matter, and this sponsorship business does not bode well. If the police lose their independence through sponsorship deals, can privatisation be far away? Will the Minister tell us whether there are any plans to privatise the police?

Surprisingly, the Treasury seemed less embarrassed than perhaps it should have been over the news of the Dorset police sponsorships. It may even be policy. Chief Inspector Tom Winsor, in a recent speech to the Royal United Services Institute, said:

“The provision of services to police forces by private sector organisations, and agencies and organisations in the public sector, is likely to increase markedly as efficiencies and economies have to be found.”

Whether or not sponsorship is used—and I hope it is not—the funding formula remains profoundly flawed. Its original purpose, which is to achieve a reasonable balance across counties in police service delivered and council tax paid, manifestly no longer works.

Along with Dorset police, I welcome the review of the police funding formula, which I understand from my conversations with the Minister is due in September. Police treasurers met the Home Office yesterday as the first stage in that review. As we are on this subject, may I, on behalf of our police and crime commissioner Martyn Underhill, remind the Minister of the undertaking that he gave him at their meeting on 15 May? In a significant change to the Government’s position, the Minister agreed that PCCs can now be involved in the review, and several will be invited to join the table. As the greatest losers in the funding settlement nationally, and one of the best performers despite it, Dorset should be represented. Mr Underhill would be a worthy representative and if the Minister will kindly give some kind of acknowledgement when he responds, both Mr Underhill and I would be grateful.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I endorse his congratulations on what all our public services achieve with such scarce resources. It is commendable, and I agree that when an organisation is already cut to the bone, it is very serious to have to tackle further cuts. What is most important to my constituents, who are in the next-door constituency, is their safer neighbourhood teams. If there were any further threats to those teams, we would be in danger of losing public confidence. They have been built up with our scarce resources but are now potentially affected. I endorse my hon. Friend’s request for Martyn Underhill to join the table, because he is hard working and someone who has his feet on the ground and will know what he is talking about when he gets to that table.

I agree with every one of my hon. Friend’s words. The safer neighbourhood teams are key to policing in Dorset, as I am sure they are around the country, and we are now getting to a point where even they are stretched, with officers being removed to deal with the night-time economy and, as I have already indicated, the other target areas of potential crime from which all towns suffer to a certain extent.

I am concerned about the Government’s plan, as I understand it, to begin the review this autumn but not report back until after the next election. We cannot wait any longer to get a proper and fair settlement, and I ask the Minister, most respectfully, to speed the process up considerably and report back before 2015. Need I remind him that there is no guarantee that he and I will be serving in government in 2015, or even be MPs? Policing is a serious matter, and the resources must be there to do the job effectively. Crime may well be down in Dorset, but that should not be an excuse to keep cutting. The previous chief constable told me repeatedly that every time Dorset police did well, more resources were taken away. I am afraid that I do not understand the logic that if someone is doing well they should lose the resources with which they can keep up the extremely high standard they have attained.

I believe, and my constituents tell me—as, I am sure, do the Minister’s—that people ideally want to see police officers on foot, patrolling their towns and villages day and night. I have argued strongly for a return to the days when each village had its own bobby living in the community. Costly though that may be in the short term, catching a potential offender in their childhood would save countless millions of pounds in the longer term.

I would like to dwell a bit on that point, and speak from my previous experience as a soldier patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland. The way in which we dominated the ground, gathered intelligence, fought against the IRA and protected the good people of Belfast and the other places in which I served, was by presence, by showing a face, patrolling the streets, being there for people to talk to, and being there to reassure, listen and pick up intelligence. The modern world relies more and more on technology, but the CCTV cameras, precious though they are, cannot possibly pick up on a patrol on the ground, on the atmosphere, the feedback, the communication and the observation, on the shop that is a bit different this morning from what it was last night because there is a gunman inside with a weapon to the shopkeeper’s head. CCTV cameras will not pick that up; police officers on foot will. When they come back, a huge amount of intelligence can be obtained by asking, “What did you see during that two-hour patrol?” When our soldiers came back everything was logged, pictures were taken and checks were done, and all the intelligence went up the line, meaning we were better informed and could do a far better and more effective job on that mission.

I am glad to say that policing does not carry the threat of being blown up, although police officers in this country tragically lose their lives in the line of duty. In Dorset, however, we are most fortunate not to have had such an incident, as far as I can recall, for many years, if at all, and long may that be the case. Nevertheless, the threat is there. I urge the Minister carefully to consider the funding formula, and to give a fairer deal to the people of Dorset, who must be treated more equitably. We are not asking for more money. We understand the restrictions that the Minister, the Government and the country face—the austerity we all face. We have heard about that again and again. What the people of Dorset are asking for is a much fairer share of the cake.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax)on securing the debate and on continuing his assiduous pursuit of the issue. I understand, not least through that pursuit, how important police funding is for Dorset and, as he said, we have corresponded on the subject. I very much welcome the interest he has shown in the specific needs of the Dorset police, who of course do much of their work in rural areas. I also appreciate the significance he attaches to the forthcoming review of the police allocation formula.

I had a very positive meeting last month, not only with Police and Crime Commissioner Martyn Underhill, but with Chief Constable Debbie Simpson, and I assured them that the Dorset police and crime commissioner, along with PCCs across the country, will be able to engage fully with the review process. I am happy to repeat that reassurance today.

I should just say that this is not the change of policy that my hon. Friend presents it as; the Government have always intended the process to be a full one, and that is why it has to be longer than he would have hoped. As part of the process, we want to engage as many people as possible, precisely because everyone, understandably, comes to the issue from their individual point of view, and we want to hear all their voices.

Is the Minister able to guarantee that Mr Underhill will be one of the delegates during the review? It would be most helpful if he could confirm that.

What I can confirm is that all PCCs will be able to contribute fully to the review, and therefore his own commissioner will, I am sure, make an important contribution.

While we are testing what might or might not be included, could I provoke the Minister even further and invite him to say that tourism will at least be considered as part of the formula? Bournemouth swells by up to between 15,000 and 20,000 people on Friday and Saturday nights. That places huge pressures on Bournemouth police, and with half of them focused on the town centre, the rest of the town does not get the attention that residents believe it deserves.

I am very conscious that each area has its particular pressures. The pressures can be rural or tourism ones, and there are clearly night-time economy pressures in big cities as well, and I am absolutely sure that during the review people who feel such pressures locally will urge us to take them into account more than the current formula does. I can only repeat that that is why the review will be complex and will take some time.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset made the point that we have the financial background that we do. The action taken has secured stability, and we have positioned the UK as a relatively safe haven, with interest rates at near-record lows, benefiting businesses and families. We have, however, had to make tough spending decisions, and as a service that was spending more than £14 billion a year, the police service must take its fair share of the funding reductions. Nevertheless, in the financial year 2013-14, we have sought to protect the police as far as possible.

On the fairness that the Minister talks about, because Dorset has been at the bottom of the pile for so many years, we do not regard any further cuts across the board as fair. Our cuts do not equate to those for another force that has had a lot more money for a lot longer. I hope that the Minister follows my logic.

My hon. Friend makes that point powerfully, but as he would expect, those in other parts of the country make equal and opposite points just as powerfully. It is in the nature of applying a national formula to 43 forces that there are obviously winners and losers. To repeat myself for about the fourth time—I apologise, Mr Dobbin—the formula is an extremely complex instrument, so changing it to make it fairer will be a long and complex process.

There were further cuts to most departmental budgets last December, but we protected the police from those additional reductions in 2013-14. The Home Secretary decided not to pass on reductions relating to the November 2011 announcement on pay restraint that would have resulted in a fall of £66 million in overall police funding. The further reductions announced in the 2013 Budget have not been passed on to the police. In 2013-14, the police will therefore receive the amount of funding agreed in October 2010.

I understand that PCCs are keen to know their funding allocations for 2014-15 and, in particular, the implications of the last two autumn statements and the March Budget. As hon. Members would expect, we are looking carefully at all Home Office budgets for 2014-15 to ensure that every penny is spent where it is most needed, and we will announce our decision as soon as we can. Obviously, the spending review is next week.

The Minister mentioned the Home Office budget and the Home Secretary. I was delighted to read the ideas she advanced in The Sunday Times about savings that could be made in not just the police, but the emergency services, not least because they are my ideas that I presented to her about six months ago in my report on improving the efficiency, interoperability and resilience of our blue light services. Will the Minister say, for a couple of seconds, where those ideas are going, because greater savings made in the Home Office budget as a whole will have an impact in Dorset?

I should indeed congratulate my hon. Friend on the creative and stimulating ideas about more efficient ways of providing blue light services across the board. As he is aware, we are looking at them carefully, but it is a long-term process. For example, many people have asked whether PCCs could merge the fire and police services in their area, but there is currently no legal power for them to do so, so that will not happen tomorrow. As he knows, the Home Secretary and others are interested in those ideas.

Let me turn specifically to Dorset. As has been said, the overall funding settlement for the police is challenging, but Dorset police and the vast majority of forces are demonstrating that it is manageable. The latest report from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary makes it clear that forces are making the necessary savings, while front-line delivery to the public is largely being maintained. As has been said, recorded crime in Dorset was 13% lower in the year to December 2012. Overall crime is down more than 10% since this Government came to power, and in the last set of figures the downward trend was replicated across every police force in England and Wales.

I appreciate that funding reductions have meant all forces having to consider where savings must be made in officer and staff numbers. In Dorset, the number of officers was reduced by 6% in the year to September 2012. Ultimately, decisions on the work force’s size and composition, which are important, are for individual chiefs and PCCs. However, I emphasise that, across forces, the proportion of officers on the front line is increasing. That, together with continued improvements in victim satisfaction levels, shows that the police are rising to the challenge of maintaining and improving services to the public while delivering their share of the savings required, and I congratulate them on that.

I have to make the point that we are at the very bottom of the pile. Yes, Dorset police force is doing a good job, as the Minister said. I question his figure of 6%: it does not tally with mine—I am just thinking on my feet—but perhaps he is looking at a shorter period. The figure of 30% has stuck in my mind, and that would be even bigger if the planned cuts, whereby we would lose nearly 500 officers, are implemented by 2018. We are now at the point where the force is doing a good job, and there are officers on the front line—no one is left in back offices; they have gone now—but we do not have any more to put on the front line. The idea that we do is a complete fallacy for us, because the point is that we are at the very bottom of the pile. With all due respect to the Minister, he seems to be talking about forces across the country, but we are a very exceptional case.

All I can say to my hon. Friend is that at a time of austerity, all Ministers discover that everyone is an exceptional case. He projected the numbers out to 2018, but I do not share his degree of clairvoyance about public spending. I am conscious that we will get the figures for 2015-16 next week. Anything beyond that can be only speculation, but he cited numbers out as far as 2018. I am not saying that there will be an instant turnaround in the public finances—we will need to maintain suitable discipline—but on Wednesday we will know about the numbers for as far as 2016.

Central Government are not the only source of funding for the police, who receive an average of 25% of their funding from the police precept component of council tax. The exact proportion varies from force to force, and the level at which it is set is a matter for individual PCCs. In Dorset, as my hon. Friend said, the proportion, at more than 40%, is much greater than average, which means that it is in a much better position than the majority of forces to manage central Government funding reductions.

I recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend and the Dorset PCC have raised, in that the specific nuances of policing in Dorset may not be reflected fully in the police allocation formula. That includes the various challenges that he and others have referred to about rural policing, visitor influx and the demands created by the night-time economy. The current formula accounts for the needs of police forces that do much of their work in rural areas, and it should ensure that local police forces get funding to compensate for the policing required in areas with high concentrations of pubs and bars. Those and all other elements of the formula will be considered as part of the forthcoming review.

I am pleased that the Minister has mentioned the point about high concentrations of bars. The formula does not work properly because the mathematics are for the whole of Dorset. An awful lot of its rural areas have no pubs and clubs, which are collected closely together in certain pockets. If we look at the maths, and consider the number of pubs and clubs in the area covered by Dorset, it works out that we have about one every square kilometre, but of course that is not the case. That is the dilemma with the current formula.

Indeed. I hear what my hon. Friend says, and there will be a review, as I have said.

On sponsorship, I am aware that the Dorset PCC has said that he wants to ensure that his force takes full advantage of all funding streams. The Government’s position is that it is for the PCC and the chief constable to determine whether any sponsorship is appropriate. There is a financial code of practice, meaning that every force should have its own guidelines about the acceptance of gifts and sponsorship.

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset that that is not privatisation. We do not want to privatise the police, but sensible use of private sector skills can help forces to discharge their duties and ensure that officers are on the front line, not trapped behind desks, so improving the protection we give the public. Core functions, such as patrolling and leading investigations, will always be done by sworn warranted officers. The police will remain accountable to the people, and any decisions to engage the private sector will be taken by elected PCCs, which gives local people a say. I am afraid that I do not share his view that it is anathema: if PCCs think that that is a good way to get more resources on to the front line effectively, we should look at it.

The challenge for Dorset police force, as for all other forces, will be to continue to transform its organisation and to build a modern, flexible and resilient service that delivers for the public. I commend the work that it has already done to rise to that challenge, and I hope and expect that it will continue to do so.

Sitting suspended.