West Midlands Police

Nick responds to a Commons debate on West Midlands Police

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing the debate. I am delighted to be discussing these issues with him once again-I think for the third time today. I have also met him to discuss the funding of West Midlands police, and I know that he speaks with genuine concern, passion and interest about the subject, which is also motivated by the interests of his constituents and by wanting the best possible police service in his constituency and more widely in the west midlands. That is an ambition that the Government share. It is the first duty of the Government-of any Government-to ensure that the public are safe, and it is important to us all that we have an efficient and effective police service. However, the Government also have to deal with the deficit. The hon. Gentleman recognised that in his comments. We can disagree about the pace at which the deficit is being dealt with, but Government Members argue that it is essential that it is dealt with as fast as we are proposing.

Nevertheless, I think that both sides agree that the police would have to make savings irrespective of how fast that deficit was reduced, and there is indeed agreement on both sides that the police can make substantial savings, so what we have is a discussion about the scale of those savings and how they can be delivered in a way that does not affect or damage the service that people are entitled to expect in their homes, in their workplace and on the streets. I believe that it will be possible for police forces across the country, including the West Midlands police, to restructure, make savings and drive down costs in a way that will enable them to deal with the reductions in grant that we have had to announce, without producing a service that is worse for the public. We are asking the police to make savings to meet a challenging funding settlement. We have always said that it would be challenging; it was announced in the spending review that the central Government grant to police forces is reducing by 20% in real terms over four years.

Not every force is affected in the same way, because the amount of resource that is available to forces depends on how much they raise from council tax payers. Every force raises some money from council tax payers. On average, that is about a quarter of the funding that they receive, so it is a highly significant share. The West Midlands force receives the second lowest amount from the council tax payer, a point that has been well made by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. That means that the 20% reduction in real terms is more challenging for West Midlands than for other forces.

As I explained to the Home Affairs Committee today, we looked closely at whether it would be right or possible to adjust the grant reduction to take into account the fact that some forces, such as the West Midlands force, raise less from their precept, but there were a number of objections to that. One is that by doing so, we would be penalising council tax payers in other areas who already pay far more for their policing services and have had a big increase in council tax over previous years. That would be unfair. Also, by subsidising forces, including large forces such as West Midlands, in that way, we would be asking other forces to take a larger cut in central grant than 20%. They would have regarded that as very unfair.

It seems right and fair to treat all forces in the same way and ask that they deal with a 20% reduction in real terms. The implications of that are not the same in cash terms. The cash reduction for forces in the first year is 5.1%. In the second year it is 6.7% on average. Taking account of the specific grants that are added, the average reduction is 4% in the first year, 5% in the second, 2% in the third and 1% in the fourth. Those are cash figures and do not take into account inflation, but they illustrate the fact that although these are challenging reductions, they are manageable, provided that considerable savings can be achieved.

Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary says that forces together can save more than £1 billion a year-that is some 12% of their funding from central Government-while protecting front-line services. They can achieve that by redesigning their services, and specifically by making changes in their back and middle offices, including by outsourcing. That has happened to differing degrees across forces, but the West Midlands police are now looking at such a radical service redesign.

I met the chief constable again today. Indeed, I have just been with him, discussing these very issues. The kinds of project that the force is considering are those that would save large sums of money as it attempts to meet the budget reductions, but I do not believe that those changes would mean a reduction in service that would be felt by the public.

The Government have never been able to give a guarantee about police numbers, and nor were the previous Government. We recognise that police forces are having to institute a recruitment freeze and that some forces, including West Midlands police, are using the A19 procedure so that police officers who have reached 30 years of service retire. There will be reductions in the size of police work forces, and that is true for West Midlands police. However, that is not the same as saying that there will necessarily be a reduction in the quality of service for the public. The task for chief constables and their managers in the police force, supported by their policy authorities and the Government, is to find ways to drive the kind of service redesign that will mean that the public still see their police officers on the streets and still receive a good response from them and that the police are still able to engage in the kind of partnership activity that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which is so important in dealing with youth crime.

In addition to the savings that the inspectorate of constabulary identified, we believe that further savings could be made by police forces. I rehearsed some of those briefly with the Home Affairs Committee today and will be happy to do so again. For instance, we think that procurement of non-IT goods and services could save another £200 million a year, bearing in mind that police authorities currently spend £2.8 billion a year on equipment, goods and services. We also think that savings from IT will be possible if police forces collaborate. We have a new approach to procuring and managing IT. There are 2,000 IT systems between the 43 forces, employing around 5,000 staff. The general view in the service is that savings will be possible by managing that better, and the Government are determined to help drive that.

Furthermore, we have set up an independent review of pay and conditions under Tom Winsor, the former rail regulator, and it will produce its first report shortly. That will advise us on the right and proper balance between pay and conditions and whether we have the right arrangements in relation, for instance, to overtime, special priority payments and such matters. That will enable us to ensure that we have an affordable service, but also one that fairly remunerates officers, who do such an important job, recognising that they cannot strike and that many do a difficult and often dangerous job. We await Tom Winsor's report and will then advise on our position. Any changes that might be made, including the possibility of a two-year pay freeze, which would also save significant sums of money for police forces and which we expect the rest of the public sector to undergo, would have to be agreed by the police negotiating board.

Despite the fact that we expect that the overall size of the police work force to be reduced, including in the west midlands, we are absolutely determined to protect front-line services.

Steve McCabe: I recognise the difficult job that the Minister has. Does he have any plans to issue guidance or advice to the police on the significance of young people when considering their budgets? That group cannot vote and does not have a voice in the same way as adults, and that is part of the purpose of raising the matter.

Nick Herbert: I was going to move on to young people. I have no specific plans to issue that kind of guidance, partly because I do not think that I need to persuade chief officers or police forces about the importance of such work. They know that the significant investment that has been made in the development of neighbourhood policing and the growth of partnership working, whereby police officers are engaged with local authorities in crime reduction measures, particularly those affecting young people, has been a really important move. It has helped to reduce crime and to build public confidence, and my understanding is that chief officers, including Chris Sims, the chief constable of West Midlands police, are committed to it.

We need to send a message to local authorities. They of course face equally challenging reductions in funding, but, as they too have to take very difficult decisions on how to make savings, it is important that we remind them that community safety is one of their statutory responsibilities, and that the partnership work that we have seen between local authorities and the police locally has helped to make communities safer and must continue.

As local authorities consider how to achieve those aims, we want to ensure that local partnerships have a purpose, that they are non-bureaucratic and that they do not waste time. They should not simply involve meetings between council officials and police officers; they should be places of real action-orientated policing, with a strong focus on preventing crime and all the measures that we know to be successful, particularly in youth services.

I pay tribute to the West Midlands police and its partners in the community safety partnership for their work in tackling youth crime and violence in Birmingham. Birmingham has worked closely with the Government on a number of programmes to tackle youth crime and violence, and the city pioneered the use of civil injunctions to tackle gang violence, an approach that was subsequently enshrined in law and will go live on 31 January. This year the Home Office will provide Birmingham with £350,000 for work to tackle youth crime, in addition to £85,000 for work to tackle youth violence. So we are doing what we can.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to all the people who work in Birmingham and elsewhere to prevent and tackle youth crime and violence: local communities, police officers, police community support officers, youth offending teams and others. The Government's aspirations for policing in the west midlands are the same. The chief constable could not have put it better when he said on 11 January:

"My task is to protect delivery at all costs, to protect the frontline, to protect neighbourhood teams which have been such a success, to keep our ability to deliver the policing people want."

We share that ambition.

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18 January 2011

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