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Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): When I talk to my constituents, the majority of them are delighted that the Government are taking that course. They think that it is common sense to use such information to solve crime. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, whatever happens, he will press on with the programme, despite some of the opposition that we have heard?

Mr. Clarke: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. He is absolutely right. The concrete results achieved produce a much more unfriendly environment for the potential criminal. That is why the Government are giving that investment such a high priority.

For all those projects, specific payments will continue to be made for all three years of the spending review period. They are key programmes.

In November, when we announced the provisional funding settlement, details of the specific payments were given at the same time. It is the Government's intention to continue that arrangement next year and also to include details of capital and the National Crime Squad and National Criminal Intelligence Service levies. Instead of announcements dribbling out over time, everyone will know exactly where they stand.

Mr. David Heath: Although the capital spends this year are extremely welcome, there is still the problem that national programmes are displacing much-needed essential maintenance and work on the backlog of repairs in forces. Can the Minister persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends of the crying need to release the accumulated capital receipts and to allow them to be used for the purposes for which they were raised from local taxpayers and ratepayers--to fight crime effectively?

Mr. Clarke: That is a fair point and I shall consider it. Although capital expenditure is not part of the grant report, for this year we have been able to raise the sum for capital grant and supplementary credit approvals from £144.3 million to £157.3 million, after several years during which the total remained unchanged. In addition, £75 million will be allocated to those forces taking Airwave; and all police authorities and forces are being encouraged to explore the scope for private finance initiative projects. However, I shall look into the point about capital receipts made by the hon. Gentleman. It would be helpful if he could write to me about the ways in which his force might use such resources; I should be happy to consider that.

We are introducing other funding initiatives. We are providing for a basic command unit fund to support and encourage programmes to prevent crime and fear of crime at the level closest to the general public. An important part of our policy is to strengthen the basic command unit aspect. Details of the scheme will be developed and will be published later this year. Provision has also been made for assistance to police authorities in London and the south-east towards the cost of the pay lead necessary to recruit and retain officers. That point relates to our earlier discussions.

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The settlement takes into account the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to improve efficiency for which we set a year-on-year target of 2 per cent. for each year between 1999 and 2002. The inspectorate assessed all 43 police authorities and forces as having delivered the 2 per cent. efficiency gains; they are on line to deliver further efficiency gains of 2 per cent. The total value was more than £183 million--a serious amount. We believe that efficiency gains will total at least £440 million over the three-year period. I congratulate all the forces on the commitment that they made to achieve those improvements in sometimes difficult circumstances.

On next year's funding settlement, we continue to set considerable store by stability in the grant system to help planning, so we have proposed no changes to the method of police grant distribution. There will thus be no substantive changes to the operation of the police funding formula for next year. Data have been updated as usual. That has had an effect on grant distribution between police authority areas.

Mr. Blunt: When will the results of the 2001 census come into the formula?

Mr. Clarke: The short answer to that question, which I put articulately and effectively, is that I do not know. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that point. It is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, not for the police. We are merely subjects of DETR in our police operations at the Home Office.

The main issues that emerged from the consultation and the representations that were received were the implications of ring-fenced funding, the proposed levies for the NCS and the NCIS, the problems of rural policing, the continuation of the old force establishment component in the formula, the costs of Airwave and the costs of police pensions.

I have addressed the issues of ring-fenced funding. We believe that it is important that these funds are targeted more specifically to achieve results--to recruit more police officers, establish the DNA database and so on. I shall not devote more time to that point.

I hope that it will be possible to build on the successes that we have taken forward. The whole settlement is concentrated on improving the policing service on the ground; most of the funds will, as in the past, reach police authorities.

Throughout the country there was a great deal of what I can only describe as scaremongering about the NCS and NCIS levies. I attach great importance to funding the NCS and the NCIS at the proper levels. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took careful account of the comments made, and the increases in the NCS and NCIS levies, which when added together amount to 10 per cent. of the 2000/01 levy in cash terms, achieve a balance. The increase for the NCS was broadly in line with the average spending increases across the country. The increase for the NCIS was significantly greater, because we need to commit to intelligence-led policing in a variety of ways. The system of funding the NCS and the NCIS is under review and there is legislation before the House on the matter at the moment; we debated its Second Reading yesterday.

I have discussed rural policing.

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I have been asked to complete the removal of the police establishments element from the formula. Police establishment levels were originally included to provide stability and continuity. The Government have always intended that those historic manpower levels should be part of the formula on a temporary basis, and should be removed at whatever rate proves compatible with the need for stability. It remains our intention in due course to wind up that part of the formula, which has been progressively reduced from 50 per cent. to 10 per cent. of overall funding, but in the interests of stability we are making no formula changes for next year.

Pensions are a real cause of grievance in many parts of the country. The arrangements whereby pension costs form part of each police authority's budget are long-standing. There are some advantages, but overall there is no doubt that rising costs are a matter of concern to the police service. We are still working on proposals for a new pension scheme for new entrants that will be less expensive for officers and police authorities alike. There will need to be further consultation on that in due course, as part of our long-term strategy.

I take a particular interest in these issues and have discovered for myself how difficult they are. I have joined colleagues in the Treasury in asking officials to provide an assessment of the various alternative ways of providing the finance for police and fire pensions. The options considered will range from establishing fully funded schemes to changing the way in which expenditure on police and fire pensions is presented in the accounts. My officials have been asked to take account of the views of police and fire authorities and other key stakeholders. I expect a report on the alternatives to be ready by the spring.

In conclusion, the Government are determined to reduce crime, to lessen fear of crime and to see more police officers back on the beat. The signs are that that is starting to happen. I will not join in the party political arguments that we sometimes have on these matters, but I believe that the record of this year and of the settlement is one of which the Government can be proud, and which the police service as whole has the basis to develop into the future.

5.13 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I start, as the Minister did, by paying a tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the men and women of our police force.

When I spoke in last year's counterpart of this debate, I had been shadowing the Minister for three or four hours and was just starting in my present role as Opposition spokesman. After a year, I have had an opportunity to see at first hand the work that the police are doing in their fight against crime. I have spoken to officers of all ranks, and I am more conscious of the value of that work than I was previously, although I have always been a strong supporter of the work that the police do.

Last year, I said that morale was a problem in the police service. There is no doubt that the position has worsened in the intervening 12 months. The chairman of the Police Federation, whom the Home Secretary often criticises on the subject, has said that police morale is the worst that he has ever seen. The Minister said in a parliamentary answer that a good way to judge morale was to look at

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how many officers were leaving: resignations from the police service have increased by 60 per cent. under this Government.

I shall give a typical example of the comments that I have received. An officer recently e-mailed my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), saying:

That comment is not unique. We often hear very critical comments about what officers regard as Government complacency. They know that 200 offenders, who have been convicted of assaulting police officers, have been let out of jail on the special early release scheme. Those criminals were not fined, but sentenced to prison. On average, they have served about 30 per cent. of the sentences imposed by the courts. Such measures are devastating to police morale.

It is rather rich for the Home Secretary to say today that there is a hard core of about 100,000 criminals in the country and that the courts are at fault for not imposing heavier sentences, given that, whatever the sentence, under the early release scheme offenders are let out after serving less than half their sentence. There is a certain dishonesty about that, and if we are to address the problems of crime, we need to adopt a straightforward approach that can be understood by those who might be tempted into crime.

The police have 2,500 fewer officers and the Minister suggests that the recent one-off boost in recruitment lays a basis for the future, but all the signs show that police officers are leaving in greater numbers and that the crisis will get worse, not better. Targeting some offences, such as car crime and burglary, is a good idea, but too few officers are dealing with those manpower-intensive duties, with the effect that insufficient officers are available in our town centres to deal with violent crime and to prevent it from happening simply by their presence. There is no better way to stop trouble in a town centre than to have a strong, visible police presence.

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