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Fiona Mactaggart: We have got into a debate, since I sought to intervene, about where this all started. In Slough, it started with the abolition of the police housing allowance by the Conservative Government, which has meant that police officers in Slough, who are only four miles away from the boundary of the Met area, are paid £6,000 less than Met officers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in power, his party was wrong to abolish the police housing allowance?

Mr. Paice: No, I certainly do not agree that we were wrong to abolish it per se—[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Lady specifically referred to Slough. I do not pretend to have a detailed working knowledge of the police force in Slough; that is her responsibility, and I do not have that knowledge. If it proves that the policy was not right for circumstances in Slough, she may have a point; I cannot answer that. However, overall, it was not wrong to abolish the allowance in the wider context of London and the Metropolitan police. The £6,000 pay lead to which the Minister referred was a more sensible way of dealing with the problem, coupled with the introduction of the transport allowance. My own county, however, is suffering from the introduction of that allowance; in counties from which it is possible to commute to London, we now find that many police officers are using the free travel to join the Met. It is swings and roundabouts; some police forces may have lost out a little, but overall there has been a significant gain for policing in this country.

The final background issue which I wish to mention is crime. In the five years before Labour came to power, crime fell year on year by a total of 17 per cent, which was the first time in decades that the rise had begun to be reversed. Crime then started to rise; the Home Office, as is traditional in the circumstances, tried to change the figures so that it was difficult to make comparisons. However, after those changes, recorded crime began to rise again, by 3.8 per cent in the following year, only thankfully to fall back by 2.5 per cent. the year after.

Mr. McCabe: Does the hon. Gentleman reject the British crime survey finding that overall crime has fallen by 22 per cent. since Labour came to power in 1997?

Mr. Paice: I find it hard to accept that. The fact is—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that we are discussing the size and distribution of the police grant as contained in the report.

Mr. Paice: I appreciate that very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. However, may I respond briefly to the

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intervention? The simple fact is that much crime, particularly violent crime, has risen dramatically in the past few years. In some London boroughs, robbery has increased by more than 100 per cent. in the past 12 months. For the Minister to chide us that crime doubled over 18 years sits ill with the fact that under Labour, violent crime and robbery in some London boroughs has doubled in 12 months.

Having set the background to the debate, I shall look directly at funding and the police grant. The Minister paraded a great many figures to demonstrate huge generosity. He spoke about 6.1 per cent. and 5 per cent., and at one stage he got to a 16 per cent. planned increase. For the vast majority of police authorities, however, the reality is much less. For 19 authorities, it is the floor figure of 2.3 per cent. The introduction of floors and ceilings is a commendable way of ironing out some of the unfairnesses that arise from the formula, but it seems odd to choose figures which mean that almost half—19 of the police authorities—are at the floor level.

The total standard spending increase of 2.8 per cent. means an increase of £209 million, but according to the Association of Police Authorities, authorities will have to increase their revenue expenditure by £371 million just to stand still. That is because of inflation, last year's pay settlement of 3.5 per cent., and pensions rising by a projected 8 per cent. this year.

We see another turn of the screw on the council tax payer. Already under the Government there has been a marked shift towards funding the police through the council tax payer. That is nowhere more marked than in the Metropolitan police area, where there has been a 141 per cent. increase in the council tax precept per head. In Humberside, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said, it has doubled. In Staffordshire, too, it has doubled. In my county, Cambridgeshire, it has gone up by 64 per cent. In the county of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), it has gone up by some 60 per cent. The county with the lowest increase is Durham, where the figure is just 23 per cent. I can only conjecture as to why that might be.

We also know that for the coming year, as a result of the grant settlement announced by the Minister this afternoon, police authorities are considering the need for further huge increases. In the case of Cambridgeshire, despite what the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) said earlier—she was wrong—the county police authority is consulting on a 20 per cent. increase, just to have a stand-still budget, with no extra for national schemes or local pressures. Despite what the Minister said, Cambridgeshire remains the second lowest in terms of officers per head of population and in terms of average spending per head.

In Cumbria, the chief constable said that the settlement means that there will be some hard decisions ahead. In discussions with other authorities this morning and earlier this week, we found that Hampshire, the Minister's own authority, requires 5.2 per cent. just to stand still, but is expecting an increase of 14.5 per cent. In Lancashire, the projected figure is 8.7 per cent., in Cheshire, 14 per cent., and in Bedfordshire, 12 per cent. A survey conducted by the Police Authorities Treasurers Society showed that a significant number of forces were considering an increase

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in the precept of 20 to 30 per cent., and others were trying to deal with the shortfall by cutting back on certain elements.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): In the case of the West Mercia police authority, a further massive real-terms increase of 19.9 per cent. in council tax is predicted. That comes on top of the 7.9 per cent. increase that the county council must levy to meet the Government's spending ambitions—a huge increase for those who can least afford to pay it.

Mr. Paice: Were all counties represented in the Chamber and were I to give way, I am sure that many other hon. Members would tell similar stories to that of my hon. Friend. Every county that we have telephoned has given similar stories. We just chose a few at random.

Will the Minister tell the House what rise he realistically expects in the average council tax precept by police authorities, just for a stand-still budget? It is important to know that because, as the chief constable of Cumbria said with reference to the crime fighting fund,

As the Minister reminded us, the Government are committed to having 130,000 officers by the end of the approaching financial year, yet some authorities clearly doubt whether they can afford to maintain the normal recruitment pattern. That would mean losing access to the crime fighting fund. The Minister makes great play of the target for a record number of officers, and we shall be pleased if he achieves it. However, the cup may be dashed from his lips because authorities cannot afford the extra officers without further substantial increases in council tax. In the first four years, council tax payers have had to pay considerably more for, in the main, the same number of police officers.

The Minister mentioned pensions in his concluding remarks. I appreciate the difficulty of wrestling with that issue, but I hope that he realises the urgency of reaching a conclusion on the problem. It is a running sore for police authorities and a huge and increasing drain on their resources.

The Minister referred to the distribution formula, and I was interested to hear that he and the Home Secretary believe that the time is right to undertake "a serious and wide-ranging review of the formula". That would be good news if the Government had not embarked on a similar review three years ago in 1999. We have received no results from it. Year after year, the Minister and his predecessors have promised to change the distribution formula; we continue to await results.

Top-sliced funding is also important. This year, the Government have increased the amount of money that they top slice from the police budget by some 51 per cent. for special initiatives. I admit that each initiative is a worthy item of expenditure; £120 million extra has been taken for them, another £203 million for the National Criminal Intelligence Service and £167 million for centrally provided services. The figures for last year are not directly comparable because they are shrouded in Home Office mystique, but there appeared to be an increase of 143 per cent. in the amount of money that was top sliced and retained by the centre. That is a worrying trend.

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The Home Secretary reportedly said that he wanted an initiative a day, but a clear picture is emerging: he does not trust chief constables or police authorities with the initiatives. The trend towards central control of funds, coupled with the swingeing extra powers that he proposes to take in the Police Reform Bill, are the signs of someone who trusts nobody. His stance appears to be, "We can have as many initiatives as we like as long as they are all mine." That is the opposite of local control, to which the Government pay lip service.

It is worth recalling the words of the White Paper, which was published before Christmas. On page 137, it states:

Yet their power to act is increasingly curtailed.

We can divine two clear messages from the settlement and those that preceded it. First, there is a huge shift in the cost of policing, which is borne increasingly by council tax payers, presumably in the hope that they will not notice, that they will blame the police authority or, even better, the local authority that levies the tax. Secondly, we can forget about local control or initiatives. Policing will be exactly what the Home Secretary determines. His instincts about the need to improve policing are right, but his methods are wrong.

Increasingly centralised control of our police by funding or authority may seem attractive to a Home Secretary who wants change fast, but it is dangerous to put so much power in the hands of one person, and he should think again.

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