My Lords, the provisional police grant report to be published shortly sets out the Government’s decisions on police funding for 2015-16. No decisions have yet been taken on police funding beyond March 2016. However, as the police have shown categorically under this Government, it is possible to deliver lower crime while reducing budgets.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer and congratulate him on his Dispatch Box manner, which has been exemplary since he became a Minister. However, does he not realise that there is very real concern in the country—not least in Lincolnshire, where the chief constable made a similar statement to Sir Bernard’s just a week before him? Is my noble friend confident that, apart from anything else, we will be able to continue to recruit candidates in the right number and of the right quality, because public confidence in the police service is being somewhat damaged by these statements?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks, which are of course reciprocated. On the budgets that we are talking about, it is important to say that we inherited a very difficult set of financial circumstances, and the police had to take their share of the pressure. The reality is that although absolute police budgets have fallen by 16% in cash terms, crime has fallen by 20%. That is welcome. Indeed, in Lincolnshire, where Neil Rhodes is, there has been a 20% reduction in overall crime levels against a 10% change in overall officer numbers. That gives some encouragement that it can be done.
My Lords, I declare my registered interest in policing. Does the Minister accept that it will be prudent for the next Government, of whatever complexion, to consider further police reform, including potential amalgamations, if such reform is shown to provide better value for money, improve public confidence and, most importantly, safeguard neighbourhood policing, which seems to be under threat? Does he agree that the current Government’s support for police and crime commissioners should not get in the way of, or inhibit, further discussion of sensible reform?
I acknowledge the noble Lord’s great expertise in this area. The current Commissioner of the Met, while warning about cuts, also said that cuts without reform would not work. I think that everyone is signed up to the fact that there needs to be reform. What that reform should be is where the debate lies. Our argument is that perhaps there is greater room for the reform of policing—for example, doing away with targets and making just one target of cutting crime, and being better co-ordinated in terms of procurement between forces. Those are arguments that can be had. I also recognise the importance of local policing, which the noble Lord referred to as well.
My Lords, the Minister is aware that cuts upon cuts to police budgets mean that more functions are now being carried out by the private security industry—even custody suites in police stations. The role of private security is increasing dramatically and it is interacting with the public daily, so why have the Government failed to regulate private security firms? The consultation on this issue had one of the largest responses ever and it was almost unanimous in its support for regulation. The industry itself—that is, the organisations representing those businesses—is calling for regulation urgently, so why will the Government not act in the interests of the public and of the industry?
Of course the private security industry is the subject of regulation, and I will come to that. The reality is that in the past, in 2010, there were 5,000 police officers who were dealing with back-office and administrative functions. We said that, given the need to reduce overall budgets, the essential thing was to protect front-line policing, and therefore that we needed to move those people out of administrative tasks and on to the front line to actually fight against crime. That is what they have done, heroically, and that has led to a reduction in overall crime.
My Lords, are there any plans to extend the powers of the police and crime commissioners to investigate serious complaints against police officers? If so, what discussions have taken place with the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and what additional resources does my noble friend have in mind for the crime commissioners?
There have been no proposals to do that. The Independent Police Complains Commission, to which police and crime commissioners are also accountable, is covered by the present regime. Police and crime commissioners can play a leading role in helping to produce more effective policing locally, as is the case in Northamptonshire, where they have instituted co-operation between the police, fire and ambulance service in order to reduce costs and protect front-line policing.
My Lords, I also declare my interest in policing. I want to go back to the Minister’s Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. After five years in office, is it not rather surprising that the Government do not have a strategy for what to do next?
Obviously I defer to the noble Lord and his expertise, but the Government do have a strategy. We want the police to focus on cutting crime. We give the responsibility to police and crime commissioners and to chief constables to try to determine what the allocation of those resources should be in their local communities. That is what our strategy is. It is then down to the police and crime commissioners and chief constables to implement that. They are doing a terrific job, which is the reason why recorded crime is down to its lowest level.