10 January 2008
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am grateful to the Liaison Committee and to you, LadyWinterton, for the opportunity to allow the House to debate the fourth report of the Home Affairs Committee from the last session, which is on police funding. The purpose of the debate is to discuss the issues that were raised in the inquiry and to look at developments since.
I am pleased to see the Minister back in Westminster Hall after the debate yesterday on police pay, which was initiated so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). At 80 per cent. of the policing budget, police pay-related expenditure is a major aspect of funding, and I shall speak about the issue later.
As this is my first speech on a Select Committee report as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, I should like to pay tribute to the Committee’s staff, who are led by Elizabeth Flood and Tony Catinella, who do a wonderful job.
“Chris is unusual among modern politicians”.
I am sure that we will find that that is the case, as he proceeds with his new portfolio. It is worth noting his quote of the month from his defence of Albrook farmhouse in a local publication. He said that it was
“clearly better to be a Beatle than a Beale”
Policing and law and order are fundamental to a modern society. We ask the police in our country to perform a wide range of tasks, and we rightly expect a high standard of service. In the past 10 years in particular, we have seen the role of police officers greatly increase. That is partly owing to our growing anti-terrorism operation, but it relates also to the fact that there has been a growth, in the past 10 years, in the domestic agenda that requires police activities and assistance. We ask some officers to carry firearms and to approach people who may be a threat to their lives.
During the de Menezes case, we heard that a police officer had thrown himself on a man whom he believed to be a suicide bomber, to stop the public being hurt—the officer was rightly commended for his actions. Officers quite literally deal with life and death situations. Our law and order agenda, as set by the Government, is wholly dependent on our police force, and it is vital that good relations are built between the people who make the laws and those whom we ask to enforce them. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the 142,374 police officers in the 43 forces throughout England and Wales.
It is worth bearing it in mind that the Committee began to inquire into the funding that police forces receive, how it is used and what changes can be made to improve efficiency in April 2007. The report made a number of wide-ranging recommendations to which the Government initially responded in October 2007. The most significant question was whether we are getting value for money. Had the increase in funding been matched by a fall in crime trends? The Committee felt, on balance, that it had not.
It was agreed that there had been a general fall in crime, but that was most significant in the years predating the bulk of additional police funding. The fall in crime figures has now levelled off, despite significant increases in police funding for the years 2000-01 and 2004-05. The report acknowledges that crime levels are affected by a range of factors other than police resources and that it is difficult to draw firm conclusions from high-level data on overall crime and funding levels. However, the report concludes that the reduction in overall crime did not seem to be directly related to additional resources.
“strength, visibility and focus”
“significant impact on reducing crime”.
The Committee welcomes the range of steps that are being taken to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of the police service, but urges the Government to redouble their efforts to ensure that investment in the police is used to maximum effect and that there is a direct relationship between expenditure and the fall in crime. I think the public expect that, and I regard it as the ultimate benchmark.
Efficiency was an ongoing theme of the Committee’s findings. We looked at research by the Treasury and the Audit Commission that confirmed that there remains scope for significant improvements in the way in which police forces use the resources available to them. We recommend that those who are in senior police leadership must demonstrate that they are making a concerted and sustained effort to improve the use of the resources that they are given. Perhaps the Minister will tell us when he replies whether he is satisfied that resources are being used in that way?
Our report noted that, in the past 10 years, the proportion of total police funding raised through the council tax precept had risen from 13 per cent. in 1997-98 to 21.5 per cent. in 2006-07. There is no specific cap on police precept increases, but there is a cap on an authority’s overall budget. The Government have made it clear that they expect council tax increases for 2007-08 onward not to exceed a 5 per cent. each year. Given that the proportion of police funding raised from local taxation is increasing, the Committee is concerned by the implications of limits on council tax increases for the resources available to the police. During an evidence session, the Minister said that the Government remained committed to the overall council tax increase of only 5 per cent. His view was that it was appropriate
“to look not at overall council tax and capping, but to look at the issue of police precept and whether it remains appropriate for that to be capped”.
He also gave examples of flexibility in the capping system. The Committee notes the Government statement that they will not hesitate to use their capping powers when necessary, and it shares the Minister’s concern at the wide variation between forces in the proportion of total police funding raised locally. It acknowledges that decisions taken locally underpin that disparity and welcomes the Government’s undertaking to consider whether it is appropriate to seek to narrow the range of police authority precepts. The Minister told us that the issue of
“local contribution versus national contribution”
“a really interesting debate”.
The Committee’s inquiry was published before the comprehensive spending review settlement for the next three financial years. The Committee was concerned about previous Government statements that any shortfall in the funding settlement must be met by increased efficiencies. We feel that the Government need to be clearer on, and more realistic about, how much cashable increases can be. The CSR asked for even greater increased cashable efficiency in the next few years, and the Committee recommends that the Home Office keep its policy of not mandating police forces to share services to cut costs under review. Will the Minister inform us whether that remains under consideration?
Crucially, the Association of Chief Police Officers has said that the CSR settlement is enough to retain day-to-day running of the police, but not enough for any key development. Although the Government confirmed that they did not intend to impose any new burden on police authorities, it seems strange to suggest that there will be no new roles for the police to fill over the next three years. The Government are urged to consider centralised funding for any new initiative.
The total provision for the policing revenue grants in 2008-09 will be £9.2 billion—an overall increase of 2.9 per cent. We accept that that is also the provisional figure for 2009-10. I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I digress slightly to talk about the increase received by my local police force, Leicestershire. The Leicestershire constabulary received a 2.9 per cent. rise in funding for the next three years, which is above the average but not at the top of the scale. It would be churlish and ungrateful of me not to thank the Minister for that increase.
Following a meeting that I had with the chief constables from the east midlands, I wrote to the Minister to ask him to ensure that there was future funding for the east midlands special operations unit. I am glad to say that that has been provided, which is very welcome. The unit is one of the few collaborative efforts between forces that still exist, and it has been very successful. The Government must centrally fund such efforts when they produce such excellent results and allow local forces to concentrate on other funding areas. I congratulate my local chief constable, Matt Baggott, who was made a CBE in the new year’s honours list. He is deserving of that award.
Too much bureaucracy and paperwork was considered a major problem for police forces. We acknowledge that there is a minimum amount of time that has to be spent on paperwork, but the time that officers spend on it remains unacceptably high. I recently met a serving officer in a west London police station. He told me that many in the force felt overburdened by the amount of paperwork that they had to complete, and he was keen on the idea of introducing handheld computers as soon as possible. He echoed the point made to me by a number of serving officers about how to reduce bureaucracy by the introduction of new technology—what I call the force behind the force. More needs to be done to ensure that handheld computers are made available to police forces as a matter of urgency.
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I, too, am interested in mobile working as a means of reducing police paperwork. Can the right hon. Gentleman give the House some indication of the resources that are, or might become, available that he came across during his inquiries?
Keith Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sorry not to have acknowledged his presence on the Opposition Front Bench today; he was very busy yesterday as well in the debate on police pay. He raises a very important point. We did not specifically consider it in the last report, but as I will say when we go on to our new inquiry later this year, it is one of the issues that we need to consider. It needs to be examined, and as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, the police are very keen to have that technology. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced in September that he would make more cash available for that purpose and made a commitment to ensuring that that was done, but unfortunately, there has not been a significant increase in such technology since then.
I recently met representatives of BlackBerry, which already supplies about 15 forces with its devices. They wanted to know how to help the Government to increase their usage. They were concerned that there would be a sudden rush to use them, but wanted to emphasise that it takes time to programme the computers, so they need to begin that work as soon as possible.
In 2002, the Labour Government introduced police community support officers. It was thought that they would provide savings by giving us a much more flexible work force. We found that, although that may be a good idea, many are not used as the Government intended. Many are not used in front-line services; instead, they are deployed on administrative work in police stations. We therefore welcome the undertaking by the Government and the Police Federation to research how PCSOs are used, and we recommend that that should be done as a matter of urgency.
There is no doubt that many questions have been raised about the role of PCSOs, with some police forces reporting that they often get in the way of regular police officers and can be too expensive. Only this summer, we heard about a young boy who was drowning, but a number of PCSOs allegedly did not help him because they were not trained to do so. That issue and others reported nationally have begun an important debate about the training of those officers, what they are meant to do and, indeed, what the public expect them to do.
I welcome the independent review of policing headed by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, whose interim report has made early recommendations to address challenges concerning bureaucracy and managing resources more efficiently, as our report highlighted. The final report is expected soon, and the Select Committee looks forward to receiving its recommendations. We hope that Sir Ronnie will come to give evidence as soon as possible.
In all, we made 22 recommendations in our report. The Select Committee felt that more issues needed to be examined comprehensively, which is why it decided, when it looked at its programme for this year, to conduct a further inquiry into policing. On 22 February, the Committee will launch its inquiry into policing in the 21st century. The launch will be in Newark and will be hosted by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). Once again, the main issue that we will examine will be funding, of course, but we should also highlight concerns such as terrorism, gun and knife crime and identity fraud. We will also consider the role of PCSOs, the role of technology in the police force, the definition of front-line policing and the recruitment and retention of officers. That will be a major inquiry, as the Committee has not considered the role of the police in such a way for some time.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Could the Select Committee consider the relationship between police forces and other aspects of justice? I was always against the reorganisation of police forces into larger units, but we have reorganised, for example, the magistrates service into larger geographical units, and there is now a very rough edge between the way in which policing works and other aspects of justice. If that could be included in the inquiry, I would be overjoyed.
Keith Vaz: Two other members of the Select Committee are attending this debate. We will certainly want to touch on the issue that my hon. Friend raises. I thank him for his intervention. We are going to Monmouth, Reading and Newark, and we might even visit him in Stroud if he is lucky.
Police and staff pay takes up the largest amount of the annual police budget, at 80 per cent. It is therefore the most crucial aspect of the police budget. As I have previously said, without the dedication and hard work of police and staff, none of the Government’s law and order agenda would be possible. Three things struck me about yesterday’s debate in this Chamber at about the same time. The first was the sheer number of colleagues who came to express their anger and concern about that issue. The second was the isolation of the Minister in his defence of the Home Office’s decision. The third was the complete unity and eloquence of hon. Members present from all parts of the country and from all parties in support of the police officers’ position.
At this point, I should like to thank my colleagues on the Home Affairs Committee: the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne); my hon. Friend the Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck); the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison); my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who is here today; the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies); my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean); the hon. Member for Newark; my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, South (Margaret Moran) and for Dover (Gwyn Prosser); the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell); my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter); the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter); and, of course, our senior member, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I thank them for extending our programme last year to allow for an extra session. That reflects the fact that the Committee views the subject as both urgent and important.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Is not that list an indication that this is not a party political question, but a matter of justice? Is it not ironic that the police, who are part of the justice system, are treated so manifestly unjustly in their pay award? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware—it may be outside his remit—that the Serious Organised Crime Agency has similar grievances? Having been promised comparable terms to those of their employment before joining the agency, staff now find the terms of their employment eroded, so that they are worse off, contrary to the promise made to them when they joined an agency of crucial importance in fighting serious crime.
The matter has caused enormous concern, and has become the most controversial part of police funding. As the hon. Gentleman said, it can be seen from the list of Members that I read out that the Home Affairs Committee consists of many different personalities and views, yet its view on the issue is unanimous. As a result of the evidence given, I wrote to the Home Secretary to ask that she reconsider her decision and accept the recommendation in the letter to her agreed by the Committee.
In our June report, we spoke of our concern about the link between pay and recruitment and training, recommending to the Home Office that the matter be reviewed. We are concerned that it will now become an even greater problem in light of the pay dispute, and evidence and testimonies submitted by the chairwoman of the Police Federation, Jan Berry, and the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police indicate that our fear is well founded.
There is particular concern about the loss of experienced officers who have become disillusioned with their jobs. A force cannot function with purely new recruits; it takes time to build up expertise. My letter to the Home Secretary spoke of that concern and of harmful effects on trust between the Government and the police. The Government’s decision weakens the arbitration panel’s power and role. Without trust and respect for the decision on both sides, arbitration becomes meaningless.
The police are a special case. They are one of only a few types of public service employee who cannot strike, and until now, they have not wanted to do so. With the Government turning their back on their duty of honour, the Police Federation has balloted its members on whether it should support a strike. As we heard yesterday, during the past month, Members have been receiving e-mails from constituents and police officers all over the country expressing anger at the Government’s decision. Let us consider one of those boroughs, Harrow—the Minister’s own local police force—where 354 police officers work. They are, of course, all eligible to vote.
It is the principle that infuriates, and the principle directly affects how we consider police funding. Sometimes, it is morally right to act in a certain way. In response to the Northern Rock crisis, the Government found £25 billion of taxpayers’ money. Why put at risk the trust and good will of the police force, which is so important to the running of the country, for the sake of £30 million out of a £9.2 billion Home Office budget?
I listened carefully to the Minister’s speech yesterday to put it in the context of what the Committee said in its report on police funding. I have heard him speak many times and have always found him to be firm, strong and decisive. I count him as a good friend—until recently, I lived in his constituency when I was in London—and I rate him as one of this Government’s best Ministers, but I felt that his argument yesterday lacked the conviction and intellectual robustness that we expect of him. Frankly, I do not believe that making his defence yesterday was his finest hour.
The Government’s case is weakening by the day. During an evidence session, we were told that most of the police forces in the country have budgeted to pay an award of 2.5 per cent., backdated from 1 September 2007. The Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have continuously defended the Government’s decision by arguing that pay awards must be kept in line with the Government’s targets on inflation—not on police funding, which would have been understandable—yet we heard from the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police that the 2.5 per cent. was in his budget and that he was ready to pay it. The Association of Chief Police Officers described the recommended pay deal as both fair and affordable.
From such evidence, it seems clear that our police forces would not suffer by paying officers the award in full, and the potential effect on inflation seems minimal, especially as the Government have decided to pay PCSOs—who work with officers—and police desk staff the full 2.5 per cent. If I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected by the Minister. He admitted in December that the police are a special case:
“We have made sure that the police are, in relative terms, considerably better paid than others in the public sector.”
We explored the issue of the arbitration panel in our arguments with the Minister yesterday, which I shall not repeat. Mention was made of the situation in Scotland, where the award has been paid in full. During an evidence session, the Home Secretary spoke of the savings that would be made by not paying the full award, saying that the amount was equivalent to 800 extra police officers. The Minister confirmed yesterday that the money would not be spent on new police officers—the savings made for police officers would not go to new recruits. It reminds me of the terracotta army—a group of people who will not be paid for, do not exist, cannot move and take a very long time to see.
Some 203 Members from all parties have signed early-day motion 512, which calls for the Government to reconsider their decision on police pay. It demonstrates the strength of feeling in the House, and it cannot be ignored. We hear that there will be demonstrations in Westminster on 23 January and in Redditch later in the month, and the Police Federation has mentioned the possibility of judicial review.
A solution to the police pay dispute must be found soon. It threatens to distract attention away from the reforms that the Minister feels are important for the police force and that the Committee has commented on in our report. We want our officers focused on what the Government want them to do, rather than sending us e-mails or demonstrating. That is why the matter is vital.
The public should see the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary meeting the Police Federation, discussing the issues and finding a way forward that results in the award being paid in full. The Government have made a mistake on the issue; their reasons might be clear from the so-called Kershaw memorandum that circulated in local and national newspapers. The new Prime Minister has said clearly that he wants to listen to Parliament. Through the early-day motion and the speeches of the past few weeks, Parliament has made its voice clear. It is time for this Government to listen and pay the police what they deserve.