Home Office Questions

Nick takes questions as Minister of State for Policing

Police (Rural Areas)

5. Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): What assessment she has made of the challenges faced by police forces required to police large rural areas. [35094]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Rural areas can present challenges for policing because of their geographical size and the remoteness of their communities. The Government's reform programme to reduce bureaucracy will help policing in rural and urban areas alike.

Julian Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend. Will he urge police forces to work much more closely with fire services and others to share back offices and facilities in rural areas and save taxpayers' money?

Nick Herbert: The short answer is yes. Police forces could make huge savings by collaborating with each other and with other authorities. An example is the proposed national police air service, which will save £15 million a year once it is fully in place. I hope that police authorities will agree to it.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): Would it not be a mistake to prop up rural police funding by plundering the police resources of urban areas? For example, many people in my constituency are worried about the future of Sherwood police station. Why are the Government cutting the most from the least well-off communities?

Nick Herbert: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that would be a mistake, and we certainly do not make funding allocations on that basis. Of course police forces have had to make savings, but we have decided that the fairest approach is to ensure that all forces make an equal share of the savings. The majority of grant is, of course, allocated according to the formula.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Although co-operation among forces, and indeed between the police, ambulance and fire services, is essential, as the Minister correctly suggests, does he not agree that there is a real risk that if a rural police force such as mine in Wiltshire were to co-operate too closely with, say, Bristol on one side or Swindon or Reading on the other, resources would be pulled out of the rural areas and into the urban ones? Keeping a rural police service is extremely important.

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of keeping rural policing services. In the end, these are matters for the determination of chief constables, who must remain operationally independent and allocate resources properly, and their police authorities. We do not seek to interfere with that, but we do seek to drive savings where they can be made by greater collaboration between forces.

Susan Elan Jones (Clwyd South) (Lab): The chief constable of North Wales says that it will be impossible to protect front-line services with cuts of £22.6 million over the next four years. Will the Prime Minister please tell us- [Interruption.] I apologise for what may appear to be a promotion. Will the Minister explain what assessment he has made of those figures?

Nick Herbert: That is easily the nicest thing that has been said to me since I have been in this job-indeed, it may be the only nice thing.

I want to discuss these issues with the chief constable of North Wales. We believe that by making significant savings in their back and middle offices, by sharing services and by improving procurement, it is possible for police forces to deal with funding reductions while protecting front-line services. It is up to the police authority and the chief constable to do everything they can to ensure that that is the case.

Crime Levels

8. Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the change in the level of crime since 1997. [35097]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The two main measures of crime-the British crime survey and police recorded crime-provide either a partial or confusing picture of trends in crime since 1997. It is crucial that we have a measure of crime in which the public have confidence. That is why we have asked the national statistician to lead an independent review of how it is produced.

Barbara Keeley: The picture of crime in Greater Manchester is neither partial nor confusing-between 1998 and 2009, the number of police officers rose by 1,200 and crime fell by a third. However, with the cuts imposed by this Government, Greater Manchester police will lose 1,400 police officers. Our chief constable told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that that will mean changes to policing, fewer police on the streets and a lesser service. What does the Minister-in his current role or any future exalted one-plan to do if the Government's cuts lead to a rise in crime, as my constituents fear they will?

Nick Herbert: I should first of all point out to the hon. Lady what the chief constable of Greater Manchester police actually said. He said that

"the end result will be more resources put into frontline policing and a more efficient and effective service for the people of Greater Manchester."

If she is going to mount her attack on the basis of police numbers falling, perhaps she will reflect on the fact that police numbers in Greater Manchester fell in the last year of the Labour Government.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Under the previous Government, more than 4,000 new offences were created-an average of 28 new offences for every month of that Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should not have a deluge of new offences under this Government?

Nick Herbert: I agree with my hon. Friend that the previous Government's record was repeatedly to introduce criminal justice Bills and to create more and more offences. This Government want to ensure that the police can focus on crime fighting rather than on form writing and the bureaucracy that they were landed with by the previous Government.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): As the British crime survey was established by the previous Conservative Administration to produce greater accuracy in assessing levels of crime, why does the right hon. Gentleman not show the same courage as the former Home Secretary, now Lord Howard, and simply admit that crime went up inexorably until 1995, and that since then, on the Conservative's own measure, crime has consistently fallen to one of the lowest levels that we have seen in three decades?

Nick Herbert: I note that on the right hon. Gentleman's measure, crime started to fall two years before the advent of a Labour Government. He knows as well as I do that the British crime survey excludes important crimes-those against young people and property-and we therefore believe it is important that we have measures in which the public can have confidence. That is why we have asked the national statistician to conduct an independent review of those matters. I urge him and Opposition Members to join us in giving evidence to the national statistician. Let us reach a measure in which we can all trust and have confidence.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a DNA database, CCTV cameras and having as many criminals in prison as possible all contribute to a reduced level of crime? Would he like to comment on what impact the Government's plans will have on levels of crime in future?

Nick Herbert: As so often, I do not agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Of course, the national DNA database and CCTV are important, but it is equally important that there is proper governance of them and that we achieve a proper balance between civil liberties and crime-fighting measures.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be working once again opposite the Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I am only sorry not to be asking my first Home Affairs question of her.

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said that there is no link between the number of police officers and the level of crime. However, the Birmingham Mail has reported that some parts of Birmingham have already seen a recruitment freeze, a cut in the number of officers in the neighbourhood team and a significant increase in the number of burglaries in the past nine months. The local police, who are being put in a very difficult position by the Government, have said that they are struggling to fight crime in the area as a result. Does he still stand by his claim or will he admit, to the police and the public, that he has got it wrong?

Nick Herbert: May I first welcome the right hon. Lady to her post? I look forward to debating these issues with her, although I hope she will not follow the poor example of her successor- [Laughter.] I mean her predecessor. I hope that she will not follow his poor example by partially quoting Government Members. I did not say that there was no link, and she should know that. Instead, I should point out something said by somebody with whom I believe she has regular conversations: that this was a tighter environment for police spending, and would be under any Government. That was what the new shadow Chancellor said to the Home Affairs Committee on 22 November 2010, when he was shadow Home Secretary.

South Wales Police (CSR)

13. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): What recent estimate she has made of the effects of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review on police numbers in south Wales. [35102]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): It is for the police authority and chief constable to determine the number of officers in south Wales within the available resource. The Government are determined to help forces protect the front line by reducing costs and bureaucracy.

Kevin Brennan: It is quite clear that there are going to be huge reductions in the number of police officers in south Wales and elsewhere. Will the Minister tell the House exactly when the Conservative party decided that it was no longer interested in being known as the party of law and order?

Nick Herbert: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We have to deal with a budget deficit bequeathed to us by the previous Government. The police service spends some £13 billion a year, and it can contribute to the savings that have to be made. Those on the Labour Benches have conceded that police forces can save more than £1 billion a year without affecting the front line.

Police (Bolton)

16. Mr David Crausby (Bolton North East) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the number of police officers in Bolton (a) on the latest date for which figures are available and (b) at the end of 2014-15. [35106]

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Bolton Metropolitan borough division had 527 police officers on 31 March 2010. It is not possible to forecast the position in 2014-15. It is a matter for the chief constable and the police authority to determine the number of police officers and other staff that are deployed to Bolton.

Mr Crausby: Well, the Minister might be in denial about the numbers in 2014, but the rest of us know that under this Government there will be fewer police officers in Bolton in that year than there are now. After all those years in opposition making a case for having more bobbies on the beat, how can this Government retain any credibility without admitting that fewer police officers will mean more crime?

Nick Herbert: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will pay more attention to what the chief constable of the Greater Midlands [Hon. Members: "Greater Manchester"] police is saying. I am sorry, I mean the chief constable of the Greater Manchester police. He told The Bolton News that cuts would not affect the front line and went on to say that there was "no reason" why crime should go up. He pointed out to the Home Affairs Committee that some of the force's headquarters operations had got too big and that some police officer numbers had been kept artificially high. He said that they had lots of police officers doing administrative posts just to hit that number.

Topical Questions

T2. [35115] Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): Contrary to the assertion of the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, Peter Fahy, has said that £134 million of cuts will have a significant effect on front-line policing. He has gone on to say that police stations across Greater Manchester will now have to close. Does the Minister think that police stations are front-line? Will he tell us which police stations in Greater Manchester will close and when?

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): The closure of police stations is an operational matter for police, but the right hon. Lady should know perfectly well that under the previous Labour Government some 400 police stations closed. What responsibility does she accept for that?

T4. [35117] Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): In my constituency, there is a healthy appetite for more policemen actually on the beat. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that the chief constable of Gloucestershire has reorganised his force and has increased the number of policemen on the beat, from 563 to 661?

Nick Herbert: I welcome the action taken in Gloucestershire. The chair of its police authority has said that

"we are making sure that what we do is increase our capacity to police and not increase our costs."

That shows that it can be done. Other forces are either protecting neighbourhood policing or even increasing it. I note that the chair of Gloucestershire police authority is also the chairman of the Association of Police Authorities.

T6. [35119] Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Year after year, my constituents tell me that their greatest concern is fear of crime. That is why they have fought hard to get 10 safer neighbourhood teams. Because of the cuts, the local police force is now consulting not on merging back offices or services, but on cutting those 10 safer neighbourhood teams down to two or three. Does the Minister believe that those cuts will help my constituents fear crime less, or make them less likely to be victims of crime?

Nick Herbert: I have had several discussions with the Mayor, the deputy Mayor for policing and the acting Metropolitan Police Commissioner, all of whom are absolutely committed to protecting neighbourhood policing. We are all convinced that it is possible to drive considerable savings in policing, including the Met, in the back and middle office, so that the visible and available policing that the public value can be protected.

Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab): Further to the Minister's answer on safer neighbourhood team policing, will he give a commitment that by this time next year there will continue to be a dedicated ward sergeant for every safer neighbourhood ward team, as now?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Lady should know that we cannot give commitments like that. The previous Government would not give commitments on police officer numbers. These are operational matters for the police. I point out to her that we have protected the neighbourhood policing fund, including by ring-fencing it for the next two years, because we value neighbourhood policing.

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24 January 2011

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