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Indeed, the Norfolk police force has identified that it needs an additional 340 officers fully to meet all anticipated requirements in the medium term. The increase will not enable investment in necessary information technology infrastructure. To give but one example, Norfolk is one of only two forces still on Holmes lit sounds like something out of Arthur Conan Doylewhich is an obsolescent and largely discarded computer system for use in major incident inquiries. Nor can the increase provide dedicated air cover. Geographically Norfolk is one of the largest counties with a long coastline, but its police force is one of only four without dedicated police helicopter cover.
Those specific examples of serious weaknesses in police cover in Norfolk would be bad enough in the context of a standstill budget had the Government not already rejected specific bids by the county. In December last year, Norfolk police force learned that its bid for funding to help to pay for a £13.5 million upgrade in the county's police technology under the capital
The Home Office has also been unhelpful in Norfolk's bid for Government funding for a helicopter. Norfolk police asked the Home Office for £1 million to cover the full cost of buying a reconditioned second-hand helicopter. They explained that a helicopter could save hundreds of thousands of pounds every year, as well as facilitating the arrest of criminals. They gave the example of Dyfed-Powys police, who saved £22 million over three years by using a helicopter rather than police on the ground.
The Home Office, however, said that the money could be provided for a helicopter only on a 50:50 basis, with half coming from the Government and half from the police force. At a meeting in December, the police explained to the Home Office that half-funding a new helicopter would cost the Government £1 millionenough money to buy a second-hand helicopter outrightbut the Home Office said that funding rules could not be changed and that Norfolk police would have to use their own budget. Reluctantly, Norfolk police withdrew their bid as they needed what money they had to recruit extra police personnel and upgrade force technology.
Norfolk police, like many other police, find themselves in the worst of all possible binds, from which it appears that there is no way out. They are bidding against other police forces. The biggest irony of everything that I have just identifiedthe lack of money to spend on new technology or provide a helicopteris that next week Her Majesty the Queen opens a new purpose-built police headquarters south of Norwich, provided under the Government public-private partnership scheme. However, like many other Government PPP schemes, such as the recently opened Norfolk and Norwich hospital, it leaves much to be desired. The new centralised police headquarters which, if properly equipped and manned, would save money and deliver better policing, is likely to be a largely empty box. It will not have new information technology, the need for which the Home Office itself has identified, and it will not be able to communicate with police personnel on the ground. The chief constable has already admitted that he does not have enough police men and women on the ground. A further bind is that money is not available to provide a helicopter.
I hope that the Minister will recognise that Norfolk, despite receiving what appears to be a headline-worthy good grant, has a standstill budget. Will he look again, both at Norfolk's bid for funding for an upgrade of the police ICT infrastructure and the rules for funding the purchase of a second-hand helicopter? Otherwise, Norfolk police will be unable to provide a proper service to meet current requirements, let alone future ones. At the end of the day, the police men and women who have to deliver that service will decide, not that there is a better police force to go to, but that there are better jobs.
Last Sunday, there was a new episode of "A Touch of Frost". The irony of that programme is that there is a contradiction between two types of policingInspector Frost is the old lag who cuts corners, bends the rules and is concerned with tackling crime on the streets, and Superintendent Mullett is the managerial policeman, who is primarily concerned with paperclip counting. Modern policing requires both characteristics in the same man or woman; I regret that, although the funding provided so far appears generous, we will not end up with the kind of men and women whom Norfolk requires.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): It is always a delight to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson); his analogies about how television cops relate to real life gives us a spirit of realism. I shall try to keep my remarks brief so that other Members can contribute to this important debate. It is traditional that I take part, and I usually do so with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears), but since she has been elevated to the Front Bench, it looks like I will be the one to keep going from year to year.
The Government's action sends out some good signals. I congratulate them on listening to people on three issues. Simply getting more police out on the beat is a measure of the effective role played by my right hon. Friend the Minister. That increase is being achieved in my area, despite a difficult position; we are experiencing retirements and are approaching a particularly difficult time in a few years as the big police increases under the last Labour Government have an impact on retirement, creating the need for further recruitment. The revenue that the police have received will result in capital spending, and I shall say more about that in a minute.
I congratulate the Government on keeping Gloucestershire constabulary; there was a movement to get rid of small police forces and amalgamation was held to be the way forward. I am pleased that we have been listened to locally; we have come up with a sensible compromise, involving better working arrangements with other emergency services, principally ambulance and fire services, which has resulted in the tri-service initiative that the Government helped to fund. Gloucestershire police will move to a new headquarters, which has changed attitudes radically, although not without problems, as my right hon. Friend the Minister will know. However, it is a good sign that there are improvements and that we are being listened to.
I do not wish to rehearse arguments that have already been made, but there are drawbacks to being a relatively small force. We have talked a lot about budgets. Ours is not one of the areas that is singing from the rooftops about what it has received, and it has misgivings about ring fencing, but genuine increases have been made and we will work within our budget. As a smaller force, the implied savings cut us to the quick. I had a meeting with the chief constable recently, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will pick up our plea for dispensation, not necessarily now, but when it comes to renegotiating budgets. Having efficiency savings year on year is an attractive notion, but they are difficult for smaller forces
I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the sparsity factor which, I hope, will play a part in future negotiations and help us to achieve an even better budget settlement and a sensible replacement for the standard spending assessment. However, I am sure that that argument has been heard; our debate can only enhance it.
Every year, I discuss the impact of the pensions time bomb, but the problem is more acute this year than in previous years, and I urge my right hon. Friend to recognise it. It is not of our making; the deal was done under the Thatcher Government to keep the police on board, coincidentally or not at the time of the miners' strike. Police officers make a considerable contribution to their pension, but it is virtually impossible to improve the provision that they have. We are trying to negotiate with the Police Federation which, I understand, is listening; we shall have to come up with a sensible compromise, but that is not easy. I am sure that that is behind the vote which, I hope, is in favour of modernisation.
Whenever I talk to the police, they moan about the contribution that they have to make, but they also think about their future, as they retire on a good pension, probably the best in the public sector, if not any sector. It is difficult to improve that provision, but we must grasp the problems that it presents because, if it is affordable now, it will certainly not be in five or 10 years' time. I am a bit worried that there is already evidence of backtracking. Even if change is painful in the short term, the Government have to see through the transition to a more sensible system.
I am pleased with the capital arrangements which, although not generous, are helpful to Gloucestershire. They have helped the tri-service arrangements and the movement towards the Airwave system. In Gloucestershire we have some difficultiesI shall be careful how I phrase this, as an inquiry is going ongetting the planning applications through for the masts so that the system can be put in place. I always try to explain to people that, although the introduction of such systems must be measured and the precautionary principle upheld, in a couple of years we will lose the analogue system. If we do not have a digital system in place, there will be no police communications. The ambulance and fire services will no doubt also seek to digitalise and use Airwave equipment.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind that if we are a little slow getting there, that does not mean that we do not want help from the Government. We just need some time to convince people that the system is the right system, that we are very careful about the siting of masts, certainly away from schools, and that we try to make sure that all the equipment goes on the same masts. We want the system put in place and we want it funded, as the existing system is unacceptable. It causes enough difficulty, as I know from going out with the police. The only thing that would be more unacceptable is no communications system at all. We must push the new system through.