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4.44 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I welcome the announcement, particularly from the point of view of the west midlands. I spoke earlier today to some of the officers, including the chief constable, of West Midlands police. They were certainly happy with their settlement, which is the average 2.8 per cent. That is worth £368 million in revenue for the west midlands, and I welcome that. It is clear that the police need more officers, more resources and more support. It strikes me, however, that they are not immune to reform. Like any other public service, they must be prepared to respond to changing needs and to changing public demands.

Despite the tale of woe and denial from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), it is a fact that the latest British crime survey records that overall crime figures have fallen by 22 per cent. since Labour came to power in 1997. That is a mark of the strength of the Government's policing strategies and funding strategies, and we should celebrate that. In particular, we should celebrate the initiatives that have reduced house burglary and vehicle crime.

We should also be prepared, however, to criticise when we come across the statistics that suggest that 24 per cent. of all recorded crime goes undetected, and only 9 per cent. ends in a conviction. That suggests that we should try to do more. A key to that is obviously to have more officers, and the additional funding that has been announced, plus the crime fighting fund, will achieve that aim. In the west

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midlands, the number of officers rose from 7,113 in March 1997 to 7,432 by September last year, so there can be no doubt that there has been an increase.

That increase could well have been greater if we were not suffering from problems of transfers and retention in the west midlands. The current proposals on police pay will give the average officer about an extra £1,000 a year, which is welcome in terms of helping with retention. If regional allowances are having a positive impact in some parts of the home counties, it should be worth considering whether a similar arrangement could be made for a big force such as the West Midlands police, which is suffering from a seepage of trained officers to surrounding forces.

I also welcome the proposals to reduce red tape. I was astounded by a case that I encountered recently in Birmingham, in which the chief constable delegated powers for the making of an antisocial behaviour order to the superintendent of the operational command unit. He omitted, however, to delegate the powers to consult with the relevant associated agencies, and the magistrates court refused to make the order, even though it was based on a well-founded application. That is the ultimate absurdity in red tape, and I hope that efforts will be made to sweep that kind of nonsense away at the earliest opportunity.

I want to comment on two topical issues confronting the police, which relate to how we spend resources. First, I want to explore the possibility of making greater use of people such as community support officers, and the proposals for the accreditation of other agencies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in some areas such provisions could complement police work. It must, however, be made clear that community support officers will play a supporting role that will not be regarded as second-hand, or cheaper, policing, and that their use will not be used to disguise police numbers.

Many hon. Members will have seen the letter in The Times today from the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. He made the telling point that a community support officer may deal with certain activities but does not have the capacity to deal with more serious incidents. If one of our—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already reminded hon. Members that we are discussing the police grant report.

Mr. McCabe: I am extremely grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point that I was trying to make is that we must use the funding appropriately, and that we do not want to create two-tier policing. Although it is important to get the maximum benefit from the resources available to us, if a uniformed element appears as a quasi police force without appropriate powers, we risk undermining public confidence rather than reinforcing it.

Will the Minister assure us that any moves towards accreditation or community support officers will be fully discussed and negotiated, and that they will not be imposed on police forces throughout the country?

I should like to touch on a point raised by the hon. Member for South–East Cambridgeshire about the tendency to centralise. He was talking specifically about the top-slicing of certain resources for central elements. This Government have established a new approach to policing under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, based on pooling resources and energies within local

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partnerships with a view to tackling crime together. It would be a mistake to go about top-slicing budgets and creating too many centralised targets and initiatives that distract from the work in a local area.

Some of the Home Office targets—those on house burglaries and vehicle crime spring to mind—have been immensely successful. However, it would be a dreadful mistake if we were to attempt to micromanage the police from Queen Anne's Gate. It would fly in the face of the recommendations in the Audit Commission report, which argued strongly for devolving resources—operational power and, more importantly, budgets and finance—to basic command units.

Will the Minister ensure that we do not undermine the work that has been done in establishing basic command units and local partnerships, because they are the key to tackling the crimes that most members of the public are afraid of. They are also the key to tackling antisocial behaviour, and they are unlikely to be aided by central targets or central management. They will certainly not be aided by centralising budgets. I hope that the Minister will pay due attention to that issue.

I am conscious that several other Members want to speak in this debate and I do not want to take up more of the House's time. Let me stress, however, that although there are concerns about the level of funding in the west midlands, I have yet to encounter a police officer who has told me that the police are unhappy with the settlement announced today. In a hard-hitting article in the force's own newspaper, the chairman of the west midlands branch of the Police Federation was critical of certain Government proposals but concluded that the other two parties had absolutely no ideas on crime or policing. When we are paid that sort of compliment, we must assume that we are on the right track.

4.54 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): This is a dry topic on the amount of grant and other allocations given to police authorities, but the impact of that grant is important in terms of the number of police officers in our areas and on our streets. That is how the public will measure the success of the Government's proposals this afternoon and subsequently.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) talked about police numbers and, from my understanding, the figures that he gave are correct. It is a great pity that we have only just got back to the position in 1997, when the Government were elected on a pledge to increase police numbers. The reason is clear. My view, which is shared by the chairman of the Labour party, is that the Government were wrong to stick to the Conservative Government's spending plans for the first two years of the last Parliament. If they had not done so, we would be further forward now.

I welcome the Minister's statement about extra costs for Greater Manchester police for their policing of the riots and for the Commonwealth games. I hope that he will be equally clear about money for the Metropolitan police to cover the costs that they are incurring to deal with the threat of terrorism, ahead of the precept which will be announced without much further delay.

The headline figure that the Government have been keen to trumpet in the paper that they have published is 6.1 per cent. That follows the headline figure of 10.1 per

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cent. last year, so the Government will be keen to say how much more is going into local policing. It is worth noting that the figure has fallen, and according to the comprehensive spending review will fall again next year to only 3.1 per cent., which is close to the inflation rate.

Mrs. Brooke: Does my hon. Friend agree that residents of Dorset, who currently pay the third highest precept, will not be terribly impressed with that headline figure, given that they are not seeing more police on the streets, which is what they want, despite paying those high levels and facing large increases in the precept?

Norman Baker: That is right. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire touched on the issue of the precept, as will I. The Government are presenting us with a pool in which the water looks crystal clear but when one sticks a piece of wood in it and stirs it around all sorts of muck comes up from the bottom, and it is less clear when the detritus has risen to the surface. There are a number of hidden problems with the 6.1 per cent. increase.

By the Government's own admission, the amount being paid directly to local police authorities averages only 2.8 per cent. That allows for an anticipated precept from the police standard spending assessment, which will come through. Therefore, of the 6.1 per cent. increase, more than half—3.3 per cent.—will be allocated for central funding proposals. Even on the Government's figures, only five of the 38 police authorities will get 3 per cent. or more. That is hardly a huge increase. Some increases are as low as 2.3 per cent., which is the Government's baseline inflation figure.

The pay award in 2001-02 was 3.5 per cent. Therefore, the base figure of 2.3 per cent. fails even to keep up with the pay award. The pay award for next year is anticipated to be along the same lines. Authorities such as North Yorkshire anticipate a shortfall of £1.1 million this year as a consequence of the Government's formula. Last year, it received £2.014 million in the rural funding element, which provided 60 new officers. That is very good: we are all in favour of 60 new officers in rural areas. As a rural Member, I know that they are badly needed.

This year's rural funding formula produces £2.018 million, which is an increase of only £4,000, but the authority has to pay the increase in the salaries of the 60 officers whom it took on last year in good faith. Therefore, the authority will immediately face budget problems. It estimates a shortfall that will have to be met by savings of 5 per cent. on non-operational budgets and big precept rises, which is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made. The Association of Police Authorities has said that 2.8 per cent. is insufficient, and that 5 per cent. is needed just to stand still.

I draw the Minister's attention to a recent press release from Cleveland police, which stated:

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The picture, then, may not be quite as rosy as the Minister would have us believe.

Let us consider the direct grant—never mind the standard spending assessment and the capital figure. According to the House of Commons Library, the direct grant for every police authority in England is now less than it was last year, if we allow for an increase in inflation. In other words, every police authority will have experienced a real-terms decrease in the grant provided by the Government—which is, after all, what we are discussing. Last year, every authority experienced a real-terms increase, except Surrey, which is a special case because of the London arrangements.

That has a number of implications. For one thing, there will be a greater reliance on the precept, as the hon. Member for South–East Cambridgeshire pointed out. That means big increases in Sussex and in other police authorities up and down the country, which in turn means that people will pay more council tax without necessarily seeing more police officers as a consequence.

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