Police Funding (Devon & Cornwall)

Westminster Hall Debate

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I regret to say that I disagreed with almost every word that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said. Normally it is possible in these debates to agree about a great deal-about the value of the local force and so on-and I certainly agree with him in his assessment of the chief constable, but many of the points that he made were party political and he has not addressed what I accept are the considerable challenges that confront policing generally and his local force in a way that is sensible or helpful to the debate. 

First, we have to deal with the deficit, but the right hon. Gentleman appears to be in denial about that. He should know that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he was briefly shadow Home Secretary, accepted that the police would have to be cut. He said that he agreed with the independent inspectorate of constabulary that the police could make savings of some £1 billion a year. The previous shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), when he was Home Secretary, refused, at the time of the general election, to guarantee police numbers. The Opposition have admitted that they would have made significant cuts in policing. We also know that they had £40 billion-worth of cuts, but they had not said how they would make them.

There is no disagreement about the fact that, in the current circumstances, the police would have to make savings, because there would be cuts to their budgets under Governments of either party. We might disagree about the scale of the cuts, but for the right hon. Gentleman to pretend to his local force that it will not have to make savings is wrong.

I simply do not accept-I shall return to this-that because forces have to make savings as part of their contribution to dealing with the deficit, it will necessarily impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the service that they provide to the public. The right hon. Gentleman did not make the case that there would be a detrimental effect on the public; he simply asserted it and quoted one sergeant. That is not a responsible suggestion. All parties agree that forces will have to make savings. We need to debate how the forces can make savings, and where the priorities should lie.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman said that we have scrapped extra funding for Devon and Cornwall police. I understood him to mean that we have scrapped the rural policing fund.

Mr Bradshaw indicated assent.

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman did not note that we have maintained the neighbourhood policing fund, which will enable the continued funding of police community support officers for the next two years. It will then be for the locally elected police and crime commissioners to decide how to deploy those funds-I shall return to that later. The general direction of travel is to roll all those grants into one, so as to give greater discretion to chief officers about how they can spend the money, but it is not true to say that we scrapped extra funding simply because the grant has gone.

The rural policing fund has been consolidated into the rule 2 grant, which has been the case since 2006-07. The decision behind rolling the rule 2 grant, the crime fighting fund and the basic command unit fund into the main police grant from 2011-12 is, as I have argued, to give more freedom. The right hon. Gentleman should be aware that no force will lose funding as a result of rolling that grant into the main grant over the next two years.

Mr Bradshaw: Is the Minister saying that the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall is wrong on that point?

Nick Herbert: I am not sure, because I do not know exactly what he was quoting the chief constable as saying. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman, and if necessary the chief constable, that the nominal loss of the rural policing fund will not mean that forces will lose funding in the next two years. It is simply that the grants have been rolled into one. The right hon. Gentleman has said that we have scrapped extra funding, and he has implied that we somehow do not care about rural areas, but I challenge him on that. I meet chief constables regularly, and I have spoken to the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall. I recognise the significant challenge that he faces, and I realise that he has to make considerable savings. There will be a loss of police officers, which will not be easy for him, the force and the staff who will have to go. However, I am impressed with his commitment to do everything that he can do drive savings in areas that will ensure that service to the public is not reduced. Indeed, his declared ambition is to improve the service that the public receive and to improve the visibility of local officers, despite the savings that he has to make. That can be done by more effective deployment, by changing shift patterns and by improving productivity on the front line. He tells me that his ambition is for the number of police officers engaged in local policing to go up slightly. Chief constables, including in Devon and Cornwall, are rising to the challenge of reduced funding, recognise the situation that forces are in and are finding savings, in accordance with the view of the independent inspectorate of constabulary that those savings are available.

The right hon. Gentleman has said that the Home Secretary reached a poor deal with the Chancellor, but I disagree. The reduction in grant is lower than was indicated by the Chancellor at the time of the emergency Budget. It is a 20% loss of overall grant in real terms over four years, but that does not take account of the fact that the force meets about a third of its funding from local council tax payers through the precept. When that is taken into account, the loss in grant faced by the force is not 20% in real terms over four years. I accept that it is a significant sum, but the savings can be made.

I do not agree-in fact, I strongly disagree-with what the right hon. Gentleman said about police and crime commissioners. It was the previous Government's policy to introduce direct accountability into police authorities, and they proposed two sets of policies before abandoning them. He should know that is now Opposition policy to have directly elected police chairs of police authorities, but the cost of holding those direct elections once every four years would be exactly the same as the cost of electing police and crime commissioners. His argument that the policy is unacceptable on cost grounds goes out of the window. That is now Opposition policy, which would cost more.

I want to make it clear that we are determined that police and crime commissioners will cost no more to run than police authorities, because there is no reason why they should do so. However, there will be a cost to holding elections for these new posts once every four years. It will cost £50 million once every four years, but that money has been found by the Chancellor and allocated to the Home Office. The money will not come out of individual force budgets, because it was separately negotiated by the Home Secretary and provided separately by the Chancellor. It is not true to say that money has been wasted on this policy. In any case, it is a bad argument against the introduction of democracy in any form to object to it on the ground of cost.

How many referendums did the Labour party propose in its manifesto? Did the party advance arguments of cost when it proposed referendums left, right and centre in its manifesto? No, it did not. Does the Labour party advance the argument that we should not hold a referendum on AV in May on the ground that the referendum will cost money? No, I do not think so. The cost will be minimal-it is a tiny fraction of the overall policing budget-and it will be incurred only once every four years.

The benefit will be far greater accountability, because an elected individual will represent people in the force area and hold the police to account. That will help to drive more efficient and efficient policing that is responsive to the local community. It is not surprising that members of police authorities are opposed to this policy, because the authorities will be abolished. I hardly expect their members to say that they would like to go, and many of them are campaigning to keep their positions.

A single elected individual will represent the whole of Devon and Cornwall, holding the police force there to account just as the chairman of the police authority covers the whole area now. Every local authority will be represented on the police and crime panel, including district councils, and they have not been represented before in the governance of policing. Local areas will continue to have a say.

Mr Bradshaw: I do not think that Conservative members of Devon and Cornwall police authority will take kindly to the Minister's suggestion that they oppose the idea only because they are worried about their own jobs. These are honourable people who have entered public service and who care about the quality of the police authority. The chairman of the authority, Mike Bull, is non-political and independent. He has no interest in defending the police authority, because his term of office will come to an end. Those are not my words-they are what he said about the costs and drawbacks of the Minister's proposals. If the Minister's proposals are so good and so popular, why is it that no member of his party in Devon and Cornwall supports them?

Nick Herbert: I was just making the point that I do not expect members of police authorities to be first in line in supporting a policy when their own positions are to be abolished. Their stance is hardly surprising. The general direction of travel towards democratic reform and having a greater democratic say in policing has been very popular in London, and it will be in the rest of the country.

I also reject the argument that the policy will somehow allow extremists to be elected. We know that the British National party polled a very low share of the vote nationally at the general election-I think that it was less than 2% of the national vote. It polled 15% in its best performance in a parliamentary constituency, which was in Barking where Nick Griffin stood. Given the size of the constituencies that we are talking about in relation to directly elected police and crime commissioners and the electoral system, it is almost inconceivable that such people will be elected. In fact, that argument is a complete red herring. The people must decide whom they wish to represent them, and it is right to give the people a say.

In conclusion, I am always willing to talk about the challenges confronting Devon and Cornwall police. I am absolutely committed to helping the force deliver efficient and effective policing and to ensuring that the officers will be there for the public who value and need them. I appreciate that the force, like other forces around the country, faces a considerable challenge. We have treated all forces equally, with each having to make an equal share of the cut. Chief constables know what the challenge is, and it is essential that they continue to drive savings in the back office, as the inspectorate says that they can, and drive savings in the middle office-

Mr Bradshaw: The Minister has referred to the inspectorate's report three times now. Will he confirm that the report that he is talking about from the inspectorate of constabulary stated that a "redesign" of the police system could

    "at best...save 12% of central government funding"?

That is nowhere near the cuts that his Government are now imposing, which is an important distinction.

Nick Herbert: I will send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the speech that I gave to the City Forum last week. I set out how the savings that the inspectorate identified-they amount to more than £1 billion a year, which is, as the right hon. Gentleman has said, equivalent to 12% of central Government funding-can be delivered. There were also other things that the inspectorate did not take into account. For instance, there are the savings that will be realised from the two-year pay freeze. Those savings will amount to some £350 million. Some £380 million of savings are expected to be realised from procuring IT and other equipment together. Those were not taken into account in the inspectorate's report.

There are also a number of other ways in which we can make savings. If police forces work together and redesign their businesses, we are confident that we can drive real savings in such a way that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of policing and not affect the service that the public expect-front-line policing, officers in neighbourhoods and on the streets, satisfactory response times and the investigation that is needed if crimes are committed. We believe that the service can be improved even as it becomes leaner. I do not underestimate the challenge that faces the whole force, but we are in this position because, to quote the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the previous Government, "There is no money." This Government were left with the biggest fiscal deficit in our peacetime history. It is our responsibility to deal with it and it is in the long-term interests of all our public services that we deal with it. We must ask the police to make a share of the savings. We know that they can do so, and we will do everything possible to support them and to continue to protect policing, including in Devon and Cornwall. I am absolutely committed to doing everything I can to secure that and to working with the chief constable.

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2 February 2011

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