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Dr. Kumar: The hon. Gentleman is criticising the Government for what I consider to be an excellent settlement. What allocation would he make? I have not heard him mention a figure.

Norman Baker: I am surprised by what the hon. Gentleman says, because I took his earlier intervention to be critical of the settlement. In any case, we are here to discuss the Government's settlement: it is they who are presenting the proposals. We made it clear at the last election that we would increase police resources significantly, and that remains our position.

What we would also do is ensure that police money was allocated in a way that was supported by police authorities and, as far as possible, by the police themselves. Can the Minister say whether chief constables are happy with the settlement, and, perhaps more importantly, with the division of it? It is not just a case of budget uncertainty; there is more and more money to bid for. There are more and more central funds, which makes it difficult for police authorities to set precepts. They are not sure of the parameters, or of how much will be provided. It is the same problem that local authorities have had for years. It is getting worse for them, and now it will get worse for police authorities.

Another problem is creeping centralisation. The Government's own figures, also provided by the Library, suggest that while the increase for police authorities directly will be 2.8 per cent., the increase for centrally provided services will be 83.1 per cent. The increase for specific initiatives will be 51.4 per cent., and the increase in central capital funds will be 33.6 per cent. The increase for the National Criminal Intelligence Service, which is now centrally controlled, will be 23.8 per cent. We are seeing huge percentage increases in all the pockets of money that are centrally controlled—huge increases in areas in which Ministers themselves give discretion. Police authorities, however, which are locally accountable, will receive an overall rise of 2.8 per cent. I do not believe that chief constables will support that.

Mr. Denham: I assume that the hon. Gentleman would include in his definition of centralising projects the

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development of a national DNA database, or the development of the Airwave communications system. Do the Liberal Democrats believe that there should be no national DNA database? Do they think that the money should simply be devolved to police authorities so that they can decide whether they want to make better use of DNA in detection?

An element of reality in the hon. Gentleman's comments would be helpful. If he does think that the examples I have given should be central priorities, he is not making a great deal of sense.

Norman Baker: A lot of money that is spent centrally could be devolved. It is not clear why the crime fighting fund, for instance, has not been devolved. That is a huge amount of money. Nor is it clear why the rural policing fund is to be held centrally. These are the big figures; the DNA database, in terms of—

Mr. Denham: I do not think the hon. Gentleman understands. The rural policing fund constitutes a recognition by central Government that the existing police formula did not adequately represent the needs of sparsely populated areas. Extra money could be provided for such areas only if central Government created a fund allocated to police authorities, but what the money is spent on is determined by the police authorities.

Norman Baker: That money is still outside the normal police authority funding settlement. A special fund has been set up that does not need to be administered centrally. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) said when he was in the Chamber, that fund could be wrapped up in the formula that is applied directly to local police authorities. It is not at the moment.

Mr. Luff: It is not my style to help the hon. Gentleman but in this case I would like to. The formal response from West Mercia police authority to the Home Office consultation states:

Norman Baker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening. He makes the case very well. The Minister will have to address that point. Ring-fencing of funds centrally is not popular as a long-term strategy, but there is an increasing tendency towards that. [Interruption.] The Minister may laugh but people in my police authority—police officers in Sussex, local councillors and others—do not like the creeping centralisation that the Government have embarked on. It is dangerous.

As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, there are proposals from the Home Secretary to take for himself sweeping powers to sack chief constables. In Sussex, we have been at the rough end of that already—one local chief constable has already been sacked via a press release by the Home Secretary. It seems that he wants to go further.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now confine his remarks to the grant.

Norman Baker: I am happy to do so. I was making the point—I am sorry if I did not make myself entirely

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clear—that the way the grant is allocated determines the level of local accountability within the police service. Centralisation of grant money and funds by the Home Office gives it extra leverage over the independence of local police authorities and forces, which is mirrored by the proposal to allow the Home Secretary to sack chief constables.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Centralisation is an arbitrary process. Does my hon. Friend agree that it does not give certainty in relation to future planning, especially for police forces in rural areas where the sparsity factor is not properly included in the calculations?

Norman Baker: I agree. The history of such centralisation has not been a happy one in local government. We need to start moving away from it rather than increasing the tendency towards it.

As for the effect that the grant will have on the number of police officers, the Government are moving in the right direction and I pay tribute to their efforts in the past couple of years to increase the number of police officers. I accept that they are succeeding in increasing the recruitment of officers, but they are not ensuring that they are retained, which is a different matter. I am sure that the Minister will try to address that.

The Minister will know, for example, that in the past year resignations in the Metropolitan police increased by 29 per cent. over the previous year. The number of officers who transferred to other forces increased by 63 per cent. Resignations in the west midlands force increased by 32 per cent. over the previous year. The figure for Greater Manchester is 29 per cent. The Government are doing good work on recruitment but they need to find a way to ensure that officers are retained because it is obvious that that is not happening. If that pattern of loss were to continue at length, we would have a preponderance of new officers without sufficient training, because it is the experienced officers who are leaving. That is bad for the balance within the police force.

What assumptions have been made in the budget proposals set out today about community support officers. How many does the Minister assume will be in place in 12 months? He must have made that calculation in order to work out the grant. When he made that assumption, he will have had an assumption about what those persons will do—clearly, the functions that they are given will determine how many are required. If they are to carry out non-controversial functions, such as dealing with untaxed vehicles, which I think all hon. Members would support, that represents a different order of things. Among the more controversial suggestions from the Government, however, are those relating to powers of detention and so on.

I welcome the overall 6.1 per cent. increase, but I am concerned at the way in which it is being divided. It is unfortunate that there is more centralisation and ring fencing, and I hope that the Government will try to reverse that trend in years to come.

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5.10 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I welcome the opportunity to address the thorny issue of police funding, and I also welcome the Minister's announcement of an increase in resources of 6.1 per cent., coupled with the important agenda of reform. Listening to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), I was a little confused as to whether the Conservative party embraces the reform agenda or is merely cherry-picking bits of that difficult procedure for its own party political advantage.

Time is short, so I shall address three specific areas: problems relating to retention and recruitment, particularly in the south-east; policing and the consequences for police resourcing in Reading; and the fundamental fault line that runs through the heart of the police funding formula. Governments of all persuasions have recognised the need to review that formula, and such a review cannot come quickly enough.

In talking about policing or any other public service, one should set out one's credentials. As a child of the 1960s, I did not always enjoy an enthusiastic relationship with the police. In fact, I first encountered my current area commander when he was a special patrol group officer on the Grunwick picket line. I am not sure whether he is personally responsible for a rather large scar on my right shin, but we have moved on and we now laugh about that encounter over a beer. I am honoured and privileged to be about to graduate from the police service parliamentary scheme, which I commend to other hon. Members. It gives fascinating and invaluable insight into the work of our police officers.

Ministers are well aware of the huge problems, to which reference has already been made, faced by all public service providers in high-cost housing areas in the south-east. However, under the crime fighting fund, which I welcomed with open arms, the Thames Valley police force received funding for only 200 additional officers for the period 1999-2001. Despite record recruitment levels in the force and nationally, and despite the additional £2,000 regional cost of living allowance for which many of us lobbied, in real terms the Thames Valley force has not one extra police officer. In fact, we are losing officers to other forces as fast as we can recruit them.

What does the absurd notion of splitting operational independence from budgetary independence mean? It means that, in effect, our council tax payers—including those represented by Opposition Members, and by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), with whom I have worked closely on this issue—are funding a recruitment agency for other, better policed forces. I hope that the Minister and other hon. Members will address that point.

As a result of the shortages that we face, Thames Valley officers are squeezed from both ends. Overtime levels are at a record high and, in the short term, officers like that situation, but it leads to increased stress in the long term. Having to work overtime just to put a roof over their heads is stressful. The problem is doubly bad in urban areas such as Slough and Reading, which attract many thousands of people from other areas, and that requires extra policing.

The Thames valley—I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough will forgive me if, in discussing policing in Reading and the Thames valley, I mention her constituency from time to time—is a growth area with an

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expanding population. Its police force has to protect the royal family and many other dignitaries. Some of them deserve such protection, but in the case of others the matter is open to debate. The area has extensive defence industries and major motorways. In short, it has a huge policing requirement, yet according to a Home Office table, in terms of the number of officers per 100,000 population, Thames Valley police force has been the third worst in the country since 31 March 2001. The best is Merseyside, with 351 officers per 100,000 people. Not unsurprisingly, that is followed by the Metropolitan police, which has 209 officers per 100,000. The Thames Valley force comes 41st out of 43, with 175 officers per 100,000 people, and the West Mercia force has 171. The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) represents an area covered by the West Mercia force. As he is an Opposition Whip, he is banned from speaking, so I shall speak for him. At 43rd in the list is the Suffolk constabulary, with something over 160 officers per 100,000 people in its area.

Interestingly, my research leads me to believe that the hon. Member for South–East Cambridgeshire was churlish not to thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the increase of 84 police officers that has taken place in his force over the past 12 months. I am sure that, on behalf of the people of Cambridgeshire, my hon. Friend will be pleased that that information has been read into the record.

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