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6.17 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I shall try to truncate my remarks because other hon. Members wish to speak.

On the earlier remarks of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), devolving policing responsibilities to the National Assembly for Wales is becoming a live issue. All the parties in the Assembly support that, and I hope that it will happen.

The Welsh total constitutes a 0.8 per cent. increase on last year, although it represents a decrease of 0.6 per cent. for North Wales police authority. It is interesting to note

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that although Wales has a higher police grant, the Welsh proportion of the overall budget decreased slightly. However, the figure is back up to 4.9 per cent. this year.

The proposed settlement provides for an increase of 2.8 per cent. in police authority funding to support local services next year. However, many areas are pegged to the floor at 2.3 per cent. We know about the pressures on budgets, which have already been mentioned, and which include pay awards for police and support staff at 3.5 per cent., the police pension, which is a big issue, and the local cost of implementing national priorities.

A letter from the chairperson of the Association of Police Authorities to the Home Secretary on 14 January 2002 states:

The letter goes on in a similar vein. That important issue has already been mentioned, so I shall not dwell on it now.

North Wales police feel aggrieved at the settlement. The Treasury gave the Home Office an additional 6.1 per cent. to spend on the police, but the amount that the Home Office has given directly is only about 2.8 per cent. The rest has gone to central schemes that hon. Members have already mentioned, and to rural forces. It is, of course, welcome that £30 million has been made available under the rural policing fund, and £65 million under Airwave for 2002-03. That is all well and good, but police forces have to bid for those funds, and there is no guarantee that they will receive them.

This settlement does not guarantee the protection of the present spending commitments of the North Wales force. There is a real danger here, because 80 per cent. of the police budget goes on people, and if North Wales police are unsuccessful with their bids, there is a big possibility that they will be forced to downsize, leading to job losses. Overall—not just in the police strand—north Wales has received a 2.3 per cent. increase from the Home Office, of which 2 per cent. will go on pensions. The rest, apparently, will be expected to form the revenue budget for this year.

Of course, not all police funding for Wales comes from the Home Office; 22 per cent. comes from council tax receipts, and 32 per cent. from the National Assembly, from non-domestic rates receipts. The Assembly has given the police authority an increase of 4 per cent. this year, because that is what was expected from the Home Office. The Assembly has pledged to stick to that figure, even though the Home Office has made an increase of only 2.3 per cent. That will, therefore, leave a considerable shortfall. North Wales police need a 5.9 per cent. increase just to stand still. With the settlements from the Home Office and the Assembly, they will receive a 3.5 per cent. increase, so it will fall to local council tax payers to bear the burden of the shortfall. This is made worse because the National Assembly has said that it will cap any increase if it thinks it necessary to do so.

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The university of Bangor recently conducted a survey of 500 people. Sixty-six per cent. said that there were too few officers in the area; 64 per cent. said that North Wales police were delivering value for money; and 75 per cent. agreed that they were prepared to pay more council tax to have more police. The local authorities in north Wales find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they substantially raise the precept to ensure access to the crime fighting fund, they will be capped by the National Assembly, so they are in real difficulty at the moment.

South Wales police—and other police forces in Wales—are relatively happy with their settlement, but they echo what North Wales police have said about inflationary costs. Furthermore, much of the money that the Treasury has given to the Home Office will be held centrally. Although some of the central schemes are very good, they will have to be part of the bidding process. According to the crime and police figures, there were 6,592 officers in Wales in 1997. By 2000, there had been an increase of roughly 200. The manpower figures seem to be improving slowly but surely.

I am acutely aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, but I am the only Welsh Member in the debate. I shall come to a close fairly swiftly, to be fair to other colleagues. Welsh police forces are doing a splendid job; their detection rate of 41 per cent. is better than the English average of 24 per cent. In the Dyfed-Powys area, for example, the rate is 63 per cent., and in Gwent it is 57 per cent. Those areas are the best by a long shot.

On Tuesday this week, there was a debate in the National Assembly for Wales on devolving all these matters to the Assembly, so that it could be on a par with the Scottish Parliament. Such a move is overdue, and the funding problems—the perennial banging on doors and desks—would come to an end if the matter were dealt with centrally in Cardiff. I do not often quote the Labour First Minister of the Assembly with any degree of confidence, but he has said that that is the "next natural step."

Interestingly, several senior police officers in Wales openly support such a move. At this late stage, I must declare an interest. My brother is a serving police inspector in the North Wales police force—not that my speech is likely to affect his life very much! If, as the Government say, this settlement and the previous ones were so fantastic, I doubt that senior police officers would be showing support for devolution of this power.

6.25 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I shall try not to iterate the points that have been so much better made by a number of other hon. Members, and I shall confine myself entirely to Nottinghamshire. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and to the Minister for teeing me up—being my warm-up act, if you like—on Nottinghamshire, whose constabulary, it has rightly been pointed out, has urban proportions of crime but shire funding and shire manning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to the now infamous Tony Martin case. That is a style of crime that my constituency—which covers Newark and Retford—mercifully sees only occasionally. The two boys in the case—one was killed, the other wounded—came from the Hawtonville estate in Newark. Crime that ends in a fatality is mercifully rare in

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my neck of the woods. Much more typical are the comments that I get two or three times a week from the likes of James Clark from Hawtonville, who told me that he is pestered all the time by mobs of youths, or from the residents of the parish of East Drayton whom I met last week, who told me that they do not see a police car for months on end. Also typical are the comments of the people of Retford, who told me that when there was a slight traffic accident in the town, the police switchboard was completely blocked.

I find myself acting as an apologist for the police, not because of their conduct—which I universally admire—but because of the funding issue, to which we must return each and every time. Stephen Green, the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, has put out a press release today, in which he describes the challenges that he faces. I have known him for 25 years—we were at Sandhurst together—and he is very open in his comments to me. It is clear to him that his force has to cope with the same level of recorded crime as Merseyside, although it is funded and manned only at the level of a shire force.

To refer back to a point that the Minister made earlier, the chief constable can deal with crime in Nottingham—just. Perhaps, at a pinch, he can deal with crime in places such as Mansfield. But he cannot deal with conurbation crime while also dealing with the market towns of Newark and Retford, and with the many villages in between. He cannot do both tasks with the men and women at his disposal. He must identify the main effort, and he does so—rightly, in my opinion—where the serious crimes occur.

In Newark and Retford, we largely face petty crimes. With the A1 running through the constituency, we have a lot of speeding and motor-related crime. Yet, suddenly, Newark has had five armed robberies in as many weeks, and people are beginning to run scared in an area that should be a sleepy hollow, but which is rapidly turning into a bit of a hot spot.

I am grateful to the Government—I shall try not to be churlish, as there have been comments on that from Labour Members—for the police numbers that the chief constable deploys today. He says that he will have 177 extra officers on the beat in the next year. That is great. Eighty-nine of them, however, will have to be found from within his own resources. That means that he will be taking people out of desk jobs and putting them back on the beat, so far as he can. I understand how difficult that will be in such an institution.

There will be 52 new recruits—rookies—coming in, and it will take some time for them to become effective. In addition, 36 experienced hands may be taken from the Thames Valley force and lured away to Nottinghamshire. Who can blame them? One would hope that life would be much better in the quieter parts of rural Nottinghamshire, so long as there are enough people to keep a lid on the rapidly changing situation.

The funding, however, is a completely different issue. I have already asked the Prime Minister why £3.3 million is being added to Nottinghamshire's funds in the next financial year. That is a 2.5 per cent. increase in cash terms, but no increase whatever in real terms. Once the costs of police pensions, equipment, recruitment and the like have been added, Nottinghamshire police face a real-terms funding decrease.

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The chief constable, Stephen Green, told me that he will make up for that decrease in funding and will fund the new officers—I repeat that I am grateful for them—by adding to the council tax precept in constituencies such as mine. Newark and Retford face an increase of over 20 per cent. in the council tax precept, yet given the increase in crime in Nottingham, I suspect that we shall see very few extra officers. We have been promised a new police station. We do not really want a new police station, because that neither deters nor detects; it is merely there to represent power. We need officers on the beat.

My final point to the Minister is this: 60 per cent. of my postbag revolves around law and order issues in my constituency. Police funding in Nottinghamshire has caused my constituents to begin to resent the police. The police find it almost impossible to recruit special constables—the no-cost option for local policing—and more and more people blame the police officers, rather than the funding and resourcing, for the way in which crime is being tackled.

As I said earlier, I try to redress that by explaining to my constituents that Nottinghamshire constabulary, particularly Newark and Retford police, do a fine job. However, if the Minister continues to underfund forces such as Nottinghamshire, which have extremely difficult decisions to make, he will continue to set the police against the population.

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